Friday, June 11, 2010

speculating about the evolution of our Brain

While reading about human evolution, a question often comes to mind: what could be the future direction of human mind's evolution?


Before we speculate about it, we must try to understand how human mind has evolved in the past. I am no expert in human evolution, but I have some understanding about its evolution. Our brain has evolved to help us survive in this world. It is not evident in modern society, but considering that our ancestors lived in the jungle for thousands of years, it should be clear that if we didn’t have effective survival strategies, we could not have existed or still be in jungles fighting for our lives daily.


Our Brain structure closely resembles evolution of various animals. Less sophisticated animals brains are similar to rudimentary parts of our brain. Let us take a look at our Brain structure. Our brain is divided in 3 parts. At the base of our brain is situated brain stem. This stem makes it possible for us and other moving animals to control basic body functions such as breathing, heart rate, other circulations. We can safely assume that it might have been evolved first, as without these functions life could not be sustained.


On top of Brain Stem is limbic system, which controls our emotions, senses, movement, sleep, thirst/hunger etc. So this adds some complexity to life. Life without limbic system might not be very interesting, as most of what makes life seems to be part of limbic system.


Then there is Cerebellum, which regulates and coordinates movement, posture, and balance. Cerebellum could have been required by those animals who do not have complex societies, but are active animals.


On top of the limbic and cerebellum is Cerebrum, which is involved in higher cognitive functions. Cerebrum is divided in many parts, one of them is neocortex. Neocortex has developed over many thousand years, and it is found in all mammals. Parts of Cerebrum that are not neocortext are responsible for symbolic reasoning and language. Cerebrum is responsible for our conscious thought, learning, thinking, memory and executive control (pre frontal cortex). So with evolution, brain is getting more complex. Let us now understand how human brain makes our society possible.


Have you ever wondered how are we influenced by moods of other people even without being consciously aware about it? It is done by our brain by observing other persons non verbal cues. We observe the facial expressions, eyes, voice tones, and other postures. Our brain has automatic way to understand these things without any training / thought. These features have helped us to be a social animal. If we could not understand what other might be up to, how would we be able to coexist with them? Daniel Goldman calls it social intelligence, and this intelligence is becoming important as our society grows.


But social intelligence has developed over thousands of years. In Early human history only those people might have survived who started living together. Other people who could not live with other people might have perished as they were weaker than most predators. When humans started living together, they might have required skills to figure out how to get along well. So if they were part of a group, it could have been a matter of life and death to be able to learn how to jell well together. So they learned how to get along with each other, and adapt to others behaviour. Although it could have been a complex learning to understand each other, but it was relatively easier than that required for a modern human. People might have lived in their tribes for their entire life. So they only needed to understand those people who were part of their group.


Things got a bit more complex when people started living in villages. And started farming. Farming would have required more complex skills, as farming means planning and village life might have been richer than the life in tribe. With time complexity increases and our brains evolve with it.


Then people moved to bigger societies such as small states or cities. As the societies might have got bigger, they might have become more complex. More complex means complex brain structures to support them were required or may be people who by chance got more complex brains might have started more sophisticated societies. In other words, It might have been a feedback loop. Complexity of society would have lead to complex social skills and complex social skills would have lead to more complex societies.


The process is still going on, and it is likely to be continued. We have started living in mega cities, we seldom know many people, so every time we meet them, we have to quickly figure out if we like them or don’t like them. Should we interact with someone or avoid them. And with movement of people across countries and cultures, it is becoming difficult for us to understand it. For example when some people nod their head up and down to say yes, yet other do this to say no. So we now have to understand not only what our culture does, but what other cultures rules are.


This exposure has now reached a new level, as we don’t need to travel to be exposed to a new culture, we do it over internet. And internet interaction also adds complexity. We have to figure out without non verbal cues what would someone mean. This complexity is going to increase as more and more people join digital world. With training and exposure we are going to be more sophisticated in our understanding of the world. Plus we also have a tool to speed up this evolution. And that is training. Training makes it possible that everyone doesn’t go through the trouble of figuring out something that is already figured out. So we get trained on something that someone has figured and we can then be trained on it and put our energy in figuring out other things.


So as a result of more and more demand on our brain for social skills, our brain might evolve further to give richer social life.


Note: What we know about our brain is continuously changing, and the current details about our brain presented in this blog are from following website.



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