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

July 23 • 12:19 PM

How a CEO’s Fiery Battle Speeches Can Shape Ethical Behavior

CEO war speech might inspire ethical decisions internally and unethical ones among competing companies.


July 23 • 12:00 PM

Why Do We Love the ‘Kim Kardashian: Hollywood’ Game?

It’s easy enough to turn yourself into a virtual celebrity, complete with fame and mansions—but it will likely cost you.


July 23 • 11:49 AM

Modern Technology Still Doesn’t Protect Americans From Deadly Landslides

No landslide monitoring or warning systems are being used to protect vulnerable communities.


July 23 • 10:00 AM

Outing the Death-Drug Distributors

Calling all hackers: It’s time to go Assange on capital punishment.


July 23 • 8:00 AM

The Surprising Appeal of Products That Require Effort to Use

New research finds they enable consumers to re-establish a feeling that they’re in control of their lives.



July 23 • 6:00 AM

How the Other Half Lifts: What Your Workout Says About Your Social Class

Why can’t triathletes and weightlifters get along?


July 23 • 5:02 AM

Battle of the Public Intellectuals: Edward Glaeser vs. Richard Florida

On gentrification and housing costs.


July 23 • 4:00 AM

Our Fear of Immigrants

Why did a group of fourth graders rally in support of an undocumented classmate while the citizens of Murrieta, California, tried to stop immigrant children from entering their town?


July 22 • 4:00 PM

Can Meditation Really Slow Aging?

Is there real science in the spiritualism of meditation? Jo Marchant meets a Nobel Prize-winner who thinks so.



July 22 • 2:00 PM

The Alabama Judge Who Refuses to Let Desegregation Orders Go Ignored

A federal judge in Alabama says a local school board has failed to meet legal mandate to integrate.


July 22 • 12:00 PM

On the Destinations of Species

It’s almost always easier to cross international borders if you’re something other than human.


July 22 • 10:51 AM

The Link Between Carbs, Gut Microbes, and Colon Cancer

Reduced carb intake among mice protected them from colon cancer.


July 22 • 10:47 AM

Irrational Choice Theory: The LeBron James Migration From Miami to Cleveland

Return migrants to Cleveland have been coming home in large numbers for quite some time. It makes perfect sense.


July 22 • 9:32 AM

This Time, Scalia Was Right

President Obama’s recess appointments were wrong and, worse, dangerous.


July 22 • 8:00 AM

On Vegas Strip, Blackjack Rule Change Is Sleight of Hand

Casino operators are changing blackjack payouts to give the house an even greater advantage. Is this a sign that Vegas is on its way back from the recession, or that the Strip’s biggest players are trying to squeeze some more cash out of visitors before the well runs dry?


July 22 • 6:00 AM

Label Me Confused

How the words on a bag of food create more questions than answers.


July 22 • 5:07 AM

Doubly Victimized: The Shocking Prevalence of Violence Against Homeless Women

An especially vulnerable population is surveyed by researchers.


July 22 • 4:00 AM

New Evidence That Blacks Are Aging Faster Than Whites

A large study finds American blacks are, biologically, three years older than their white chronological counterparts.



July 21 • 4:00 PM

Do You Have to Learn How to Get High?

All drugs are socially constructed.


July 21 • 2:14 PM

The New Weapon Against Disease-Spreading Insects Is Big Data

Computer models that pinpoint the likely locations of mosquitoes and tsetse flies are helping officials target vector control efforts.


July 21 • 2:00 PM

Why Are Obstetricians Among the Top Billers for Group Psychotherapy in Illinois?

Illinois leads the country in group psychotherapy sessions in Medicare, and some top billers aren’t mental health specialists. The state’s Medicaid program has cracked down, but federal officials have not.



Follow us


Subscribe Now

How a CEO’s Fiery Battle Speeches Can Shape Ethical Behavior

CEO war speech might inspire ethical decisions internally and unethical ones among competing companies.

Modern Technology Still Doesn’t Protect Americans From Deadly Landslides

No landslide monitoring or warning systems are being used to protect vulnerable communities.

The Link Between Carbs, Gut Microbes, and Colon Cancer

Reduced carb intake among mice protected them from colon cancer.

The New Weapon Against Disease-Spreading Insects Is Big Data

Computer models that pinpoint the likely locations of mosquitoes and tsetse flies are helping officials target vector control efforts.

People Are Clueless About Placebos

Doctors know that sometimes the best medicine is no medicine at all. But how do patients feel about getting duped into recovery?

The Big One

Today, the United States produces less than two percent of the clothing purchased by Americans. In 1990, it produced nearly 50 percent. July/August 2014

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