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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 George!

    Your question is quite complicated and definitely raises mixed responses from me.

    On the one hand, I think that, as Edward Long has stated, our brains have always had the same capabilities. The product of what our brains can achieve is dependent on the time we live in and how well we uncover our subconscious minds. But not on our brain development. The more knowledge and ideas that are fed to it, the more advanced our creations will be.

    However, on the other hand, I am drawn to the idea that our brains are constantly evolving. Which raises the question, when will this stop? Will our brains ever reach an ideal state of being or rather are they capable of infinite development? I do like to think that our world is limited, which would mean that our brain advancement is also limited.

    So this is my long way of responding that I am don't know. Though if we did know the future of our brains, wouldn't it diminish the challenge of exploring the powers of them?
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      Mar 11 2013: Hi Hadar,
      I liked the point you brought up about the abilities of our brain depending on the time we live in. I feel there are two ways to look at this situation. Our brain definitely has evolved over the last couple centuries in terms of the knowledge we have gathered. We learn more in school now than people may have a generation above us. As our society, and scientific community develops, there are constantly new ideas being brought forward, new innovations, new data. The time we live in is more advanced than say 50 years ago, and the fact that we can understand more could be viewed as our brain's development and progress. The other way of interpreting this question is to think about the actual biological processes that show that our brains are changing. The emergence of a mirror neuron system was a very significant, physical change that can be measured and understood. Whether another visual development like that will occur is difficult to predict. But I personally believe it could happen. We simply do not have the capability to imagine it or understand it until it does.
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        Mar 12 2013: Nicely said,

        I agree on both counts. I think there is much evidence and reasoning to support the biological and cultural evolution that you just mentioned. That seems to be the path of history, always evolving and developing. If it did not happen in this way I do not think we would know what we know now.

        As for the human brain, I think it will continue you to grow and I think this is evident by the examples Nemma pointed out

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