Menus Subscribe Search
bright-brain

(PHOTO: AGSANDREW/SHUTTERSTOCK)

How Did Our Brains Get So Brilliant?

• September 10, 2013 • 10:00 AM

(PHOTO: AGSANDREW/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Two words: open architecture.

Modern human brains evolved over the last two million years while confronting the survival challenges of African grasslands. So how do our savannah-derived brains perform high-flying cognitive feats—like reading, learning chess, and doing theoretical physics—that seem totally unrelated to our ancestral environment?

Our brains are remarkably general problem solvers. Human children quickly learn and execute new cognitive tasks that the world’s smartest chimpanzee could never learn, even after years of training. Some of our cognitive skills are consequences of our unique ability to use language, but language is only part of the answer. The real secret to our brain’s success is what engineers call open architecture, or, as Tufts University neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf has put it, a “protean capacity to make new connections among structures and circuits originally devoted to other more basic brain processes.” The open architecture of the human brain is why humans from all cultures can learn to read, write, and do math.

These brain modules are found in animals ranging from fish to rats, and taken together, they encode important abstract concepts of Euclidean geometry.

For example, when we learn to read, our brain creates new connections between specialized neural modules for vision, hearing, and language. These specialized modules evolved long before the availability of reading material, but our flexible brains rig up connections between them to build a new and cognitively sophisticated function.

Another cognitively challenging skill is geometrical reasoning, which involves mentally manipulating features of shapes and lines, and transposing those mental transformations onto our surroundings. Recent work by Harvard psychologist Elizabeth Spelke and her colleagues shows that, like reading, our geometrical intuitions are also a result of the brain’s open architecture. We have uniquely human geometrical skills that are cobbled together from two evolutionarily ancient brain modules shared with nearly all other vertebrates.

These two core brain modules are a navigation module and a shape recognition module. The navigation module enables us to orient ourselves spatially by registering the orientation and relative distances of walls and other features of our surrounding area. With the shape-recognition module, our brain intuitively uses angles and lengths to register the shapes of small 2-D and 3-D objects. Both of these brain modules are found in animals ranging from fish to rats, and taken together, they encode important abstract concepts of Euclidean geometry: orientation, distance, length, and angle. But individually, each module uses only a limited set of geometrical features, and non-human animals show a limited ability to integrate these modules.

A simple example: If someone handed you a map of a triangular room and pointed out a position on that map, you’d have no trouble navigating to that spot. This task of transposing the triangle from the map onto the real space around you feels deceptively simple, but under the hood, you draw on both your navigation and your shape-recognition modules as you mentally manipulate the sides, angles, and orientation of the triangle on the map to guide yourself through the triangular room.

Young children have functioning navigation and shape-recognition modules, but, as Spelke and her colleagues found, those modules don’t talk to each other yet. To show this, the researchers had four-year-old children use a map to find a particular spot in two different triangular “rooms” (made with movable partitions): one in which the walls were not touching, so there were no corners (and hence no visible angles), and one with just corners, but no main walls (and hence no walls for judging relative distances).

In most cases, the children could navigate the room with no corners, but they had more trouble in the room that had only corners. In other words, the children did well when they could use their navigational module to gauge the distances between walls, but they were less skilled at using the angles of the corners-only room to fill in the missing sides of the room’s shape. Spelke and her colleagues concluded that “tests of map understanding show no evidence of integrated representations of distance and angle.” These children’s brains could process distances to navigate their surroundings, and they could process angles when presented with pictures of shapes, but they couldn’t put the two modules together.

The open architecture of our African savannah brains is the secret behind many of our uniquely human cognitive feats. The cost is the long years of childhood, during which we wire together specialized brain modules as we learn to speak, read, write, draw shapes, and generally do what adults manage without effort. Scientists are discovering their complex neural underpinnings of these tasks, discoveries that show us how children learn skills such as reading and geometrical reasoning and, ultimately, how we can help children who struggle to learn better.

Michael White
Michael White is a systems biologist at the Department of Genetics and the Center for Genome Sciences and Systems Biology at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, where he studies how DNA encodes information for gene regulation. He co-founded the online science pub The Finch and Pea. Follow him on Twitter @genologos.

More From Michael White

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

August 19 • 4:00 PM

Can Lawmakers Only Make Laws That Corporations Allow?

There’s a telling detail in a recent story about efforts to close loopholes in corporate tax laws.




August 19 • 12:00 PM

How ‘Contagion’ Became Contagious

Do ideas and emotions really spread like a virus?


August 19 • 10:00 AM

Child Refugees: The New Barbarians

The disturbing rhetoric around the recent rise in child refugees into the United States from Central America may be shaping popular opinion on upcoming immigration reform.


August 19 • 8:00 AM

Making Police Departments More Diverse Isn’t Enough

Local police departments should reflect the communities they serve, but fixing that alone won’t curb unnecessary violence.


August 19 • 7:15 AM

Common Knowledge Makes Us More Cooperative

People are more inclined to take mutually beneficial risks if they know what others know.


August 19 • 6:00 AM

Seeking a Healthy Public School Lunch? Good Luck

Mystery meat will always win.


August 19 • 4:00 AM

The Positive Effects of Sports-Themed Video Games

New research finds sports-themed video games actually encourage some kids to get onto the field.


August 19 • 1:00 AM

DIY Diagnosis: How an Extreme Athlete Uncovered Her Genetic Flaw

When Kim Goodsell discovered that she had two extremely rare genetic diseases, she taught herself genetics to help find out why.



August 18 • 3:30 PM

Mister Rogers’ Heart-Healthy Neighborhood

Researchers find living in a friendly, cohesive neighborhood lowers seniors’ chances of having a heart attack.


August 18 • 2:00 PM

Wealth or Good Parenting?

Framing the privileges of the rich.


August 18 • 12:00 PM

How Much Did the Stigma of Mental Illness Harm Robin Williams?

Addiction treatment routinely fails people with mental illnesses, while mental health care often ignores addiction. And everywhere, stigma is rife. Can a tragic death prompt a more intelligent approach?


August 18 • 10:00 AM

Punished for Being Poor: The Problem With Using Big Data in the Justice System

Correctional departments use data-driven analyses because they’re easier and cheaper than individual assessments. But at what cost?


August 18 • 8:00 AM

What Americans Can Learn From a Vial of Tibetan Spit

Living high in the mountains for thousands of years, Tibetans have developed distinct biological traits that could benefit all of us, but translating medical science across cultures is always a tricky business.


August 18 • 6:00 AM

The Problems With William Deresiewicz’s New Manifesto

Excellent Sheep: a facile approach to an urgent critique.


August 18 • 4:00 AM

Ferguson Is a Serious Outlier

One black city council member is not nearly enough. In a study of city councils, only one place in America had a greater representational disparity than Ferguson, Missouri.


August 16 • 4:00 AM

Six Days in Ferguson: Voices From the Protests

A day-by-day chronology of what happened in Ferguson, drawn from the best reporting by journalists and witnesses on the ground.


August 15 • 4:00 PM

Skirting Ochobo: Big Business Finds a Way Around Local Customs

The “liberation wrapper,” which was designed to shield mouths from public view while eating, has helped a Japanese chain increase sales by over 200 percent.


August 15 • 2:00 PM

How Wall Street Tobacco Deals Left States With Billions in Toxic Debt

Politicians wanted upfront cash from a legal victory over Big Tobacco, and bankers happily obliged. The price? A handful of states promised to repay $64 billion on just $3 billion advanced.


August 15 • 12:00 PM

How the Sexes Evolved

The distinction between males and females is one of the oldest facts of biology—but how did it come to affect our social identity?



August 15 • 10:00 AM

Will Philadelphia Ever Be Home to a Middle Class?

Jake Blumgart has watched his friends decamp his adopted hometown for places with more opportunities and city services. Will anyone be left to build a better Philly?


August 15 • 8:32 AM

How a Shift in Human Head Shape Changed Everything

When did homo sapiens become a more sophisticated species? Not until our skulls underwent “feminization.”


Follow us


Common Knowledge Makes Us More Cooperative

People are more inclined to take mutually beneficial risks if they know what others know.

How a Shift in Human Head Shape Changed Everything

When did homo sapiens become a more sophisticated species? Not until our skulls underwent "feminization."

Journalists Can Get PTSD Without Leaving Their Desks

Dealing with violent content takes a heavy toll on some reporters.

Do Ticking Clocks Make Women More Anxious to Have Children?

Yes, but apparently only women who grew up poor.

Facebook App Shoppers Do What Their Friends Do

People on Facebook are more influenced by their immediate community than by popular opinion.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014 fast-food-big-one
Subscribe Now

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.