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: Not necessarily increase but change it function. I think that the human capabilities have adapted for relying on computers.

    For example instead of your brain memorizing 20 phone numbers, your brain keep the knowledge of how to access it in a cell phone, and does not keep that data. If we continue this trend it the brain will adapt to using it functions for more hands on and analytical task, and let the computer store data.

    (Pictures of the Mind: What the New Neuroscience Tells Us about Who We Are by:Miriam Boleyn-Fitzgerald)
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      Mar 12 2013: Hi Kelly,
      you bring up an interesting point about our brain learning new functions based on the technologies. I would like to expand this to include even making discoveries. One can ask why didn't our brain discover the internet, electricity and all of the other common technologies we have today thousands of years ago - what took so long? I believe a big part of it could be the fact that man started learning more. We started using the parts of the our brain that store memory and that can think of creative ideas and formulate expression. Utilizing this part of the brain allowed us to make new discoveries and develop new technologies. I think that as we continue to learn and experience different parts of our world, our brain will continue to develop and we'll continue to learn new tasks. Other tasks can get weaker as well. I bet that our brain's ability to control our farming abilities and survival skills on a lost island are much weaker than they were thousands of years ago. It all comes down to our environments and how man decides to spend his time, which determines the underlying circuitry and strengths of the brain.

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