So mankind has evolved larger brains housed in larger skulls in a relatively short time: but that is not as interesting as thinking about what can be done with those bigger brains
Over the roughly 2.5 million years that something as broadly recognisable as modern humans have evolved, and at a pace far greater than is evident in other species, their brains got bigger. Then, rather like the modern apes of today, their cranial capacities were about 600 cubic centimetres – about a pint, or roughly 60% greater than that of a modern baby.
Then, driven by a constellation of factors – walking upright, cooking their food, developing language, listening to classical music, supporting Arsenal Football Club – those brains got bigger. Today, the figure has grown to a median range of 1,400 to 1,500 cubic centimetres, or approaching 2.5 pints of electrolysed gunk that can not only conceive of landing a man on the moon, but can put him there.
But as is more famously said of another notable human body part, size is not everything. There is evidence that our extinct Neanderthal cousins actually had slightly bigger brains that do homo sapiens, i.e. us. It appears that it’s less about the volume of the matter and more about the volume and speed of the connections that really matters. Less notable than the physical expansion of our brains as functioning things is the expansion of the range of outcomes of what it is we imagine, think about, articulate and share. How do we join up the dots that we join; how effectively do we join and share them; how rapidly and with whom?
There can be no doubt but that the most significant advances in the study of the brain will be those that enable quantum qualitative steps in thinking differently as well as more quickly and securing better connected outcomes. Anyone who doubts this can consider this timeline: imagine those 2.5 million years of evolution compacted into a single year and sense the momentum building after many months of relatively modest mental development.
On this timeline, in fact, all the significant stuff happened on the final day of the year: Socrates was born before dawn and Shakespeare in the late afternoon. The Internet got going with a few minutes to go before midnight.
Before we get too excited at the prospect for next year, however, let’s bear in mind the limits of language and the foibles of human vanity. Philosopher and cognitive scientist Dan Dennett has a nice quote in his book, Consciousness Explained (1991) about the internecine bickering between the proponents of Artificial Intelligence and the “real thing” – the neuroscientists, cognitive psychologists and yes, even the philosophers:
“With so many working on the problem, no wonder consciousness is still a mystery. All (of their criticisms of each other) are true, and more besides, but I have yet to encounter any idiots. Mostly the theorists I have drawn from strike me as very smart people – even brilliant people, with the arrogance and impatience that often comes with brilliance – but with limited perspectives and agendas, trying to make progress on the hard problems by taking whatever shortcuts they can see, while deploring other people’s shortcuts. No one can keep all the problems and details clear, including me, and everyone has to mumble, guess and handwave about large parts of the problem.”
As we learn more about our incredible expanding brains, then, let’s keep mumbling, holding to the faith that a better language will emerge.