Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Brain

As I get older, I find it necessary to keep my brain stimulated or risk losing brain function. There are those who would argue that my brain never functioned at all, but I reject that assertion. Human learning is a fascinating process that begins the minute we enter this world. Modern-day humans have the longest childhood of any species on earth, but this was not always the case. The first "humans" that walked the earth grew up much faster. They didn't have the luxury of 15-20 years to grow and develop physically and mentally. Circumstances in their environment forced them into adulthood in a much shorter period. Moreover, they developed differently than we do. They achieved physical maturity faster, since they needed to get bigger and stronger sooner to survive in their harsh world. Their brains developed more slowly than ours since what they needed to learn was limited to knowledge that affected their survival.

How did I learn all this stuff? This week, PBS began a three-part series called "The Human Spark" that looks at what makes modern-day man unique in the world. After a few billion years of living evolution on this planet, and nearly two million years since people recognizable as human entered the world, a new breed of human burst upon the scene; it was us. Until then, our ancestors shared the planet with other human species, but soon there was only us. What did we possess that the others didn't? That something was the Human Spark. Did it originate in Europe as some archaeologists believe, or did it come about earlier in time, maybe on another continent?

The work of archaeologists, paleontologists and sociologists always interested me. These scientists devote their lives to the study of some seemingly small aspect of human existence, but the collective knowledge that emerges from their research gives us a pretty good picture of how humans evolved. Early humans had much smaller brains for instance, but greater brawn. Survival for them was simple; don't get eaten by something else. The brain and the body developed to help humans not only survive, but learn to kill and eat the things that were trying to eat them. As man began to learn the skills to make basic tools, and then weapons, the brain grew, but slowly. It was pointed out that Neanderthals went for 2,000 generations without changing the basic tools they first learned to make. They did adapt them for use in different environments as they started traveling to other places, but the basic designs remained unchanged.

In contrast, I recently audited a training class at work on basic pumps. Pumps were created essentially to move liquids or gasses through piping systems. The design of the pump is ingenious, yet simple. It was invented not that long ago in time, and yet its design has undergone probably thousands of changes since then, and I'm certain more will come. The Human Spark is what drove man to look beyond what was and to ask what could be. It created language, culture, music and art. It was responsible for the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution. It produced change much more quickly than it came for the Neanderthals, and caused the brain of modern-day man to grow much faster than that of our ancestors. Despite this, science tells us that even today, humans use just 10% of the capacity of the human brain.

If you're still awake, consider this. The earth has been around for about 4.7 billion years, early man has been around for maybe 2 million years, but modern-day man, people who resembled us, have been on the planet for a mere 50,000 years, just a couple of blinks in time. Yet because of the Human Spark, man's knowledge doubles maybe every 5-10 years. That's an incredible acceleration in learning and brain function in a very short period, as time is measured. Hey, we can now make microwave popcorn!

We can only imagine what the next hundred years will bring, that is if we don't blow up the planet before then. If this kind of stuff interests you, take a look at the good work PBS has done on the subject. The Human Spark . Alan Alda PBS


LOOKING FOR A WORTHY CHARITY? TRY THESE FOLKS: Children's Craniofacial Association


The Whiner said...

Well aren't we a fountain of information! Actually I hope they air that again because i wanted to watch it. I think someone should study my brain because i believe mine is actually decreasing in capacity (this is, however, directly proportional to the amount of wine I've consumed).

Jim Pantaleno said...

I am recording all three can watch when you visit. And there is nothing wrong with your brain...a little wine improves it.

joe del broccolo said...

Frankly, for the human brain it seems that it needs to spark in areas of armament and hostility. No animal si so aggressive as the human kind. Except for the need to eat, animals pretty much live in harmony with each other!
Nice blog!