Most of us have heard about them but only a few appreciate the power of them. It was more than 20 years ago that scientists discovered the fascinating mirror neurons. It was at the University of Parma, Italy where the first glimpse of mirror neurons occurred. The study’s focus was actually to examine motor neurons involved in hand and mouth actions in macaque monkeys. The basic procedure of the experiment involved monkeys reaching for food while researchers recorded firing in particular neurons. What these researchers found was that some neurons actually fired even when the monkey was not moving but was just watching someone else perform an action. So, one may easily deduce that mirror neurons are neurons that fire both when an animal performs an action and when an animal observes someone else perform an action. Nearly 20 years after the initial macaque monkey experiment mirror neurons studies are still generating fascinating results. The reason for this fascination is that mirror neurons are at the base of extremely important functions such as socialization, empathy and teaching.
More recent discoveries have shown that mirror neurons are critical in the interpretation of both facial expressions and body language. Moreover mirror neurons enable us to understand, empathize and socialize with others. As studies have shown, autistic individuals have trouble understanding other people´s intentions and feelings. Autistic individuals cannot understand the intentions of others while observing their actions. This is believed, at least in part, because autistic individuals have a malfunctioning mirror neuron system. This malfunctioning system disables these individuals’ ability to even try and comprehend someone else’s actions based on observation. In contrast to autistic individuals, people with well functioning mirror neuron system have no problem understanding other people’s intentions, which makes mirror neurons so important.
Behold – our recent ancestor, the gorilla, and ourselves, the human:
There are many characteristics that separate us from our monkey fathers. Most notably, factors that mark the evolution are the use of fire, use of tools, and a bigger brain. A recent study suggests that it is actually the onset of the use of fire that explains the ability to begin to grow a larger brain. According to a timeline of human history, the earliest Homo Sapiens appeared shortly after beginning to use fire to cook food:
They can’t stop talking about her. “Look at how popular and successful she is!” “Look at how stupid and ditsy she is!” “What has she done to be so famous?” … Well, I don’t care if she’s smart or stupid, rich or poor. The only things I see when she’s on the screen are those voluptuous curves. Regardless of what you think of her, Kim Kardashian has what most men dream of. Since this is a nerds’ blog, we’re going to take the moment to examine why we men like those curves so much.
Men like women with large curves because these provide an adaptive advantage, increasing the likelihood of the propagation of genes. Wide hips are adaptive because they make child birthing easier (more successful); large breasts may provide more nutrition during nursing. The men who go for the curves are more likely to make successful offspring; those offspring incidentally share the same instinct for curves and eventually make more progeny; and the cycle continues.
Now, Kim Kardashian is what you call a supernormal stimulus. She has everything that normally elicits a positive response but exaggerated. “Supernormal stimulus,” by the way, is attributed to the famous ethologist Niko Timbergen, who found that substituting a mamma-seagull’s white beak with its one red spot for a stick with three red spots made the chicks way more excited for food. Many more such examples have been described in a variety of animals. More
Recent reports of artificial life forms which have “evolved” a basic form of intelligence have caused quite a stir in the biological and computer science communities.
This would normally be the time when I remind everyone that closer scrutiny must be paid to just what is meant by “life”, “evolve” and “intelligence”. But while those are all fascinating philosophical questions, there is no way in which a modest little blog post could begin to cover those topics.
Instead, I’d like to draw attention to a particular aspect of Isaac Asimov’s writing, of which I can’t help being reminded after reading these reports. As the father of the term “robotics” and all things relating to it, Asimov dealt with nearly all of the issues relating to artificial intelligence. A few of his fictional robot characters even developed human-like, self-aware consciousness and creativity. But the one thing which stands out about these characters was that their consciousness was rarely a design of their creators, but rather a fluke. Minute variations in the mechanized construction of their positronic brains amounted to unique, creative minds.
Asimov’s choice to author conscious robots as results of random chance forces us to think about how human consciousness evolved in reality. It may be that such a consciousness is not strictly required for an organism to dramatically enhance its chances of survival and reproduction. We seem to assume that our superior cognitive abilities grant us an enormous advantage over other species, that the sort of consciousness which makes us self-aware, reflective and creative was the “end result” in a very long line of brain development. But evolution does not work towards such a specific end. There are plenty of other species (e.g. viruses) that persist with just as much vigor as us, despite their lack of cognitive powers associated with the forebrain. Perhaps only a minor, random mutation resulted in a dramatic and permanent change in the brain, a change which ultimately amounted to consciousness. Who knows what the odds are that such an intelligence evolved, or will evolve again in a computer simulation? At least we can be reassured that, on a long enough time scale, even the most unlikely event can occur.
In any case, Boston University’s own Isaac Asimov has made many a prediction with his science fiction, and many more can be expected.
“Artificial life forms evolve basic intelligence”-Catherine Brahic
I would hate to marginalize the Creationists that may frequent this blog, but, it is becoming difficult to ignore all of the
evidence for Evolution piling up higher and higher. This conglomerate of information is contributed to by almost all fields of study- from Archeology to Biology, and in a recent surge in the rapidly growing field, Neuroscience. Unfortunately for us, submitting to the idea of Evolution forces us to think of ourselves and our fellow humans as a little less awesome or unique- we have always reveled in our species immense capacity for complex language processing, as well as other things of course. But it didn’t just pop up out of nowhere a couple million years in.
To expand upon the research being done by neuroscience in exploring the evolution of the brain, this article focuses on Wernicke’s area (known for its dedication to processing auditory language information) in chimpanzees. This study used design-based stereologic methods to estimate regional volumes, total neuron number and neuron density. When compared to what we know about the human brain, the results are intriguing.
What did they find? A leftward asymmetry of this language area in the monkey brains. What does this mean to us? It suggests that the left lateralization of the language area in the brain (left = language, left = language, first thing to memorize in Psych 101) originated before our cutting-edge human species, prior to the appearance of our modern human language.
This investigation may seem generally boring- these Chimpanzees aren’t Darwin’s finches or anything- but it certainly is significant in showing Neurosciences’ huge potential for contribution to the case of Evolution. They showed that a language specialization that is key to our unique language capabilities actually evolved prior to the emergence of modern humans, serving as a pre-adaptation to modern human language and speech. Studies like these are closing the gap between ancestral species, and unfortunately, making us all feel a little less special about our leap to civilized society. Way to go Evolution.
Similar articles investigating monkey brains and language adaptions: http://current.com/1ri8u4c
Ps.- If anyone studying at BU is really really into Evolution, I highly recommend the Ecuador Study Abroad Program… A trip to the Galapagos Islands (on a private yacht, no less) and to the Charles Darwin Research Station is a chance of a lifetime.