TED Conversations

George Holevas

Student in Chemical Engineering, Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art

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Do you believe the human brain will continue to increase its capabilities?

According to neuroscientist Vilayanur Ramachandran's TED talk, "The neurons that shaped civilization", a sudden emergence and rapid spread of a number of skills that are unique to human beings occurred 75k to 100k years ago. These defining skills include the use of tools, fire, shelter, language, and the ability to interpret a person's behavior.

He attributes the rapid development of these skills to a sudden emergence of a sophisticated mirror neuron system. Mirror nuerons are a relatively recent discovered set of neurons that fire when an animal either performs an action or observes that same action performed by another, essentially allowing us to emulate and imitate each other's actions.

Ramachandran speculates that this brain development was incredibly beneficial to the progression of mankind because it allowed an accidental discovery by one member of the group, such as use of fire or a particular kind of tool, to spread horizontally across the population and then transmit vertically down the generations. This temporarily made evolution Lamarckian instead of Darwinian, meaning that acquired traits over a lifetime could be passed down to offspring via emulation instead of relying on Darwinian evolution which could take hundreds of thousands of years.

The question I would like to pose is, might our brains (collectively as a species) soon experience such a new type of development once again? If so, what new skills could this more sophisticated neuron system facilitate our ability to perform, considering trends in globalization, collaboration etc (e.g. collaborative tasks across geographies, learning multiple languages more quickly etc )? Has the brain's full potential already been unleashed? Or will it perpetually continue to develop more complex neural permutations?


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      Mar 7 2013: Hi Chris,

      I'm not sure if I completely agree with you when you say the physical brain is no more able to generate thought than the physical heart generates emotions. In brain activity studies, certain neural networks in deferent parts of the brain were observed to be more active during a particular thought or emotional experience, suggesting that the brain does play a role in generating thought, or at least processing it.

      Many people believe that the brain is the source of our consciousness because it is the least understood organ of our body. Every other organ can be identified as performing some mechanical function crucial to the proper function of our bodies. The brain has been said to contain more possible neural permutations than elementary particles in the universe so its complexity may never truly be understood. If our consciousness does not live in and originate from our brain, then where does it originate from?

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