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: After reading Julian Jaynes' " The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind" where he argues that there have been considerable changes in human brain since the times of Homer's Iliad (that's only about 3000 years ago), I believe that our brain changes continuously, perhaps every few generations. Consider that children in today's high schools easily absorb information that took humanity many centuries or even millennia to acquire.

    I believe, development of computer technology - games, internet, video, audio, Facebook, Google, etc. changes our brain. I realize this just watching how fast a teenager types on a phone with 2 thumbs. That requires using a different brain area than I did when I was a kid. Consider today's sports. Watch what today's teenagers do on skate boards, bicycles, or snowboards. When I was a kid, this stuff could be only seen in a circus. Now they do it in the streets.

    The changes are very gradual. Perhaps, my children are still very much like me. But, I am sure, today's environment makes them use different brain areas than I did when I was a kid. Over a few generations, this, definitely, will cause the brain to change.

    It occurred to me in a conversation about artificial intelligence that if humans ever create a machine thinking like a human, our own brains will advance by that time, and this AI will never be quite like human brain.

    But that, of course, is just my opinion. I'm not a neuroscientist and don't have research data to support what I say. MRI is used for just a few years. I'm sure, when someone analyzes the data over a few decades, your question will have a scientific answer.
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      Mar 7 2013: Hi Arkady,

      You bring up an interesting point when you speculate on the different skills possessed within a single generation gap. The prospect of humans developing a certain part of their brain just from continued use in order to interact with their environment is amazing. People have understood the fact that we can manipulate our bodies and lose fat or gain muscle by exercising. It is not common knowledge, however, that we can physically alter the neural pathways of our brain by thought and action. Given the fast paced change in modern society, maybe we aren't far off after all from a major worldwide neural development which would benefit the continued success of mankind in some unforeseen way.

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