Re-purposing old brain pathways to new ends

Against the vast sweep of evolutionary time, the mere c8,000 human generations through which our species has evolved will not have seen a huge change in the interplay of physics, chemistry and biology that distinguish the functioning of the human brain. Our first old grandpa standing on his ancient plain will have gazed at the moon with something pretty close to the neural equipment we now possess. His first thoughts will have been for the importance of moonlight in betraying the predator or illuminating the water hole.

Later on, in appreciating the moon’s significance, his anthropomorphising imagination would divine a personality to whom appropriate propitiations might be directed to ensure a healthy crop – or so he would imagine. It would be another 7,998 generations before that same brain would figure out to put us on the moon that instigated all this lunar thinking in the first place.

Brain scientists at Carnegie Mellon University have moved us closer to grasping how it is that old brains can surpass old dogs in learning new tricks. Enhanced scanning technologies have enabled researchers at the university’s Scientific Imaging and Brain Research Center to determine how specific areas of the brain, once attuned to meeting the challenges of survival, can now be identified as the same areas that grasp the principles of advanced physics. It appears, for example, that the same neural systems “that process rhythmic periodicity when hearing a horse gallop also support the understanding of wave concepts” – wavelengths, sound and radio waves – in physics. It is thought that such knowledge will improve the teaching of science.

The CMU team are by no means the only scientists pursuing this line of enquiry. A selection of stories gleaned from just a few days’ of monitoring the brain science media reveal one study that “finds where you lost your train of thought”; another that believes it can pinpoint where personality resides in the brain (that would be the frontoparietal network); and yet another that can distinguish you by reading your brainwaves with no less than 100% accuracy. And this is all before we get into the vast phantasmagoria of scientific explorations of the human brain on magic mushrooms, ecstasy and LSD. And we will leave music for another day.

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