Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


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

December 20 • 10:28 AM

Flare-Ups

Are my emotions making me ill?


December 19 • 4:00 PM

How a Drug Policy Reform Organization Thinks of the Children

This valuable, newly updated resource for parents is based in the real world.


December 19 • 2:00 PM

Where Did the Ouija Board Come From?

It wasn’t just a toy.


December 19 • 12:00 PM

Social Scientists Can Do More to Eradicate Racial Oppression

Using our knowledge of social systems, all social scientists—black or white, race scholar or not—have an opportunity to challenge white privilege.


December 19 • 10:17 AM

How Scientists Contribute to Bad Science Reporting

By not taking university press officers and research press releases seriously, scientists are often complicit in the media falsehoods they so often deride.


December 19 • 10:00 AM

Pentecostalism in West Africa: A Boon or Barrier to Disease?

How has Ghana stayed Ebola-free despite being at high risk for infection? A look at their American-style Pentecostalism, a religion that threatens to do more harm than good.


December 19 • 8:00 AM

Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.


December 19 • 6:12 AM

All That ‘Call of Duty’ With Your Friends Has Not Made You a More Violent Person

But all that solo Call of Duty has.


December 19 • 4:00 AM

Food for Thought: WIC Works

New research finds participation in the federal WIC program, which subsidizes healthy foods for young children, is linked with stronger cognitive development and higher test scores.


December 18 • 4:00 PM

How I Navigated Life as a Newly Sober Mom

Saying “no” to my kids was harder than saying “no” to alcohol. But for their sake and mine, I had to learn to put myself first sometimes.


December 18 • 2:00 PM

Women in Apocalyptic Fiction Shaving Their Armpits

Because our interest in realism apparently only goes so far.


December 18 • 12:00 PM

The Paradox of Choice, 10 Years Later

Paul Hiebert talks to psychologist Barry Schwartz about how modern trends—social media, FOMO, customer review sites—fit in with arguments he made a decade ago in his highly influential book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.


December 18 • 10:00 AM

What It’s Like to Spend a Few Hours in the Church of Scientology

Wrestling with thetans, attempting to unlock a memory bank, and a personality test seemingly aimed at people with depression. This is Scientology’s “dissemination drill” for potential new members.


December 18 • 8:00 AM

Gendering #BlackLivesMatter: A Feminist Perspective

Black men are stereotyped as violent, while black women are rendered invisible. Here’s why the gendering of black lives matters.


December 18 • 7:06 AM

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.


December 18 • 6:00 AM

The Very Weak and Complicated Links Between Mental Illness and Gun Violence

Vanderbilt University’s Jonathan Metzl and Kenneth MacLeish address our anxieties and correct our assumptions.


December 18 • 4:00 AM

Should Movies Be Rated RD for Reckless Driving?

A new study finds a link between watching films featuring reckless driving and engaging in similar behavior years later.


December 17 • 4:00 PM

How to Run a Drug Dealing Network in Prison

People tend not to hear about the prison drug dealing operations that succeed. Substance.com asks a veteran of the game to explain his system.


December 17 • 2:00 PM

Gender Segregation of Toys Is on the Rise

Charting the use of “toys for boys” and “toys for girls” in American English.


December 17 • 12:41 PM

Why the College Football Playoff Is Terrible But Better Than Before

The sample size is still embarrassingly small, but at least there’s less room for the availability cascade.


December 17 • 11:06 AM

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.


December 17 • 10:37 AM

A Public Lynching in Sproul Plaza

When photographs of lynching victims showed up on a hallowed site of democracy in action, a provocation was issued—but to whom, by whom, and why?


December 17 • 8:00 AM

What Was the Job?

This was the year the job broke, the year we accepted a re-interpretation of its fundamental bargain and bought in to the push to get us to all work for ourselves rather than each other.


December 17 • 6:00 AM

White Kids Will Be Kids

Even the “good” kids—bound for college, upwardly mobile—sometimes break the law. The difference? They don’t have much to fear. A professor of race and social movements reflects on her teenage years and faces some uncomfortable realities.



Follow us


Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.

The Hidden Psychology of the Home Ref

That old myth of home field bias isn’t a myth at all; it’s a statistical fact.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

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