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 10 2013: An interesting book I read recently had the title BIg Brain. It discusses other humans than Neanderthals and Cro Mag...which had larger brains in their groups than modern man. From undergrad days I remember the first "cave man' cited beat us by 100cc's The second wins by 250. The village idiot doesn't get eaten by a big furry varmit now. The "N" man - Many of us know he really didn't disappear when we rub the back of our head above our necks and feel that ridge. Just because some scientists don't want to think Don't believe that structure developed twice in the development of man. Think. Read Big Brain and decide on your own. But if intelligence is not rewarded - Why would we continue to evolve? When you look at the world's condition do you really believe that the current generation of fat cats are an evolutionary advance? Also, the Knowledge Based Revolution by Taki Sakiya is helpful. Okay, he is Japanese, and I don't do conji. It is available in English, and he contended last millinium that knowledge would become more common and be rewarded less.
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      Mar 12 2013: Hi,
      You bring up an interesting point, and I also think that with the convenience of technology, the human brain requires less work, and it sees little incentives to evolve. As much as the human brain has come closer to excellence, I feel that the brain evolves less now that the technology allows the brain to work less.
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        Mar 12 2013: I tend to agree with you Kyung.

        The evolution of technology has been exponentially faster in the recent centuries than it has in the past.. as far as I know. I truly believe that technology has almost replaced the inventive to evolve the human brain when computer brains can evolve at a much faster rate.

        However, I think as humans with lifespans that last a short time when compared to time humans have been around, it is hard for us to speculate how and when human brains will evolve. If there really was a huge sudden evolution 75-100k years ago, how do we know how sudden these evolutions actually were? Has the human brain not evolved much since then? I think this is a subject that is truly hard to tell. With technological advancements going at the rate they have been, I think human brain evolution will not come anytime soon.

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