Get to know the fascinating galaxy that you have inside your head

In my previous post, The evolution of intelligence: Do we know how to study it?, I have proposed an operative definition of intelligence to study the cognitive adaptations across species. I also insisted that the only way to do that is via comparative neuroanatomy. Understanding the brain is of crucial importance, especially in the light of the current events: growing stress due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the adverse effects of social isolation, and the lack of certainties in our foreseeable future. Neuroscience is considered to be the science of the XXI century.

The brain is the most complex structure ever studied. Your brain is allowing you to read these lines right now. Your brain has not stopped working since the time you were inside your mother’s womb, and it will not stop functioning until your last breath on this enthralling planet. You can think of yourself as a mere extension of your central nervous system. Crazy, right?

The complexity of the human brain

Very interestingly, a recent paper compares the two most highly complex, intriguing systems that exist: the human brain and the Universe. According to the authors, Franco Vazza and Alberto Feletti, there is a surprising similarity between the network of neuronal cells in the human brain and the cosmic network of galaxies. The results suggest that the self-organization of both complex systems is likely being shaped by similar network dynamics principles, despite the radically different scales and processes at play. Thought-provoking, indeed.

What’s harder to understand, a human brain or the Universe? World Science Festival, Nov 15, 2016.

A few weeks ago, I attended a virtual lecture by Lisa Feldman Barrett, one of the most influential neuroscientists in my career.

She is currently promoting her new book, “Seven and a half lessons about the brain”, which I completely recommend. The author of How Emotions Are Made summarizes the current understanding of the human brain. The last chapter in particular, “Brains create reality”, is absolutely fascinating. It depicts the fact that we live in, participate, and create a made-up world. We all live in a world of social reality that exists only because of our brains. Of course, there is a physical reality, which boundaries are intertwined with the ones from the brain-created social reality. Indeed, social reality has limits. Ultimately, it is confined to a physical reality.

The uniqueness of the human brain

From an evolutionary perspective, the current evidence suggests that humans are the only species that can create social realities. That striking, unique cognitive specialization is possible because of what Dr. Feldman Barrett calls the Five Cs:

Creativity: The invention of some social reality component and the assignment of functions to that mental construct.

Communication: The effective transmission of mental constructs.

Copying: The process of learning and teaching the elements of our social realities.

Cooperation: The collaborative experience of creating and living in a social reality created by other brains that work in tandem across time and space.

Compression: The process of minimizing redundancy in the transmission of information between neurons to create summaries of our social realities.

These components working in tandem are essential for the functioning of the complex cognitive processes that happen in our brains. In the words of Dr. Feldman Barrett:

Compression enables sensory integration. Sensory integration enables abstraction. Abstraction permits your highly complex brain to issue flexible predictions based on the functions of things rather than on their physical form. That is creativity. And you can share these predictions by way of communication, cooperation, and copying. That is how the Five Cs empower a human brain to create and share social reality.

Across the tree of life, most organisms have become specialists in their niches by developing evolutionary adaptations. Just think about the bizarre third finger of the aye-aye or the unique camouflage system in octopus. In turn, humans seemed to have selected a generalist approach, merging the Five Cs to create social realities. While other animals focus their attention on the elements that allow their survival ignoring the rest, discerning biological costs and benefits, humans collectively build the world we live in by adding layer over layer of new functions. Social reality equals human niche construction.

The importance of understanding the human brain

Creating social realities is a superpower that allows humans to shape our species’ evolution and design our own destiny. We control the realities we build, even though it sounds strange. This power is indeed an immense responsibility.

I truly believe that open science, along with inclusive education, are the keys to improving people’s lives and our intricate relationship with the environment. The knowledge emanated from brain research can help us in various ways, from strengthening mental health treatment and prevention, enhancing our educational systems, and even better coping with aging and cognitive decline.

I am specializing in Evolutionary Neuroscience, a field within brain research that has a bright future. Its strength lies in its multidisciplinary nature, merging the advances in neuroanatomy, neurobiology, and phylogenetic systematics to study the evolution of the brain.

I aspire to be at the forefront of this fascinating field. My passion resides in discovering the cognitive specializations that made the human brain possible and understanding those changes in evolutionary time.

This is such an exciting time to do science, a fascinating time to ask new, better questions. Science is tremendously fun, allowing you to learn and explore your curiosity every single day. As a matter of fact, science is also a way of living. You can apply its tools to improve your experience in this world genuinely. The objective of science, or at least my conception of what science should aim, is to help you live your best possible life.

The challenge is to translate complicated science into simplified units for people to think about big questions about human nature. These are simple but critical questions: How you want to live in this world? What impact do you want to have on your peers and future generations? Understanding how our brains work helps us better grasp the reality that our brains construct and the best decisions to make the impact you want.

We are our brains. This highly-complex, fascinating organ has granted the uniqueness that our species represents. I believe that one of the most powerful driving forces of our curiosity and efforts is to free ourselves of the constraints of natural selection. Understanding the functioning of the brain has started pushing the limits of our biological existence. The quest to reveal the secrets of the brain and discover our very own existence is making Neuroscience the science of the XXI century.

About the author:

I am a Ph.D. candidate in Anthropological Sciences at Stony Brook University. I study the evolution of higher cognition, learning, habit formation, and decision making in mammals by the application of phylogenetic comparative methods. As a young science communicator, my mission is to provide high-quality and vetted information in a sophisticated, straightforward, and appealing format.

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An anthropologist studying the evolution of intelligence and learning in animals. Passionately connecting Neuroscience with Evolutionary Biology. New York, NY.

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