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 8 2013: If the brain will evolve in this way on it's own is likely impossible to answer. Technology would likely affect this type of change long before natural biological mutation and selection would. There are amazing things being done right now in the sciences. Genetic decoding and manipulation, bioinformatics could cut down on negative environmental factors, Stem cells and more and more precise surgical tools could help mitigate chronological damage by replacing dead neurons and cure Alzheimer's. Better diets attribute to gains in IQ. Computer brain interfaces? Well that tech is still pretty crude when applied to the kind of enhancements you are talking about but we have replaced limbs with robotic ones controlled through by electrical signals sent through the nervous system. I have even heard that there is some feedback, but that is probably attributable to the same phenomena that created the idea of ghosts. We have definitely not reached our peak yet.
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      J D

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      Mar 11 2013: George, if I'm interpreting your question correctly, you're asking whether humans will ever experience another advancement through natural selection. Because the development of the mirror neuron was something that came about through natural selection, and the reason that it was so fit for survival was that it enabled a new kind of evolution.

      Natural selection only happens if an environment is significantly better for some than others. But humans have made so much progress that we've almost removed ourselves from nature. We have medicine and transportation that enable us to survive harsh conditions. We are supporting each other's survival instead of competing for survival.

      An advancement in our brain structure won't spread through future generations unless it were *much* better for survival than what we already have. Maybe there are people alive right now with advanced brain structures, but they're regarded by the people around them as abnormal, and they're discouraged from reproducing.

      Like Tom said, natural evolution is such a slow process. We'll probably learn to force evolution sooner than nature can (by learning how to give someone dominant traits that can be passed on?), or we might advance digital technology so much that a development in brain structure is unnecessary.
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        Mar 12 2013: Jay, I highly recommend you watch the sci-fi comedy "Idiocracy". It portrays a future world, exactly how you describe, where natural selection no longer is applicable because human's rely on technology rather than intelligence to make decisions. I agree with you that we will probably learn to force evolution faster than nature can.

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