Saturday, June 25, 2011

Can we get any smarter? (A conversation with my boy about neuroscience)

A PET image showing energy consumption in the hungry brain. Credit: Wiki
"Can we get any smarter?" That is the question that piqued the interest of a 14-year-old boy yesterday when he saw it on the cover of the July issue of Scientific American. 

What came next was a reading of Douglas Fox's fascinating "The Limits of Intelligence," some heavy thought in a young teenager's head, and a surprised father who rarely has a conversation with his son about neuroscience.

Plus, that same father is rarely met when he comes home from working all day to a welcome like this, "Hi dad. Do you want to go see a cool movie?"

The movie my boy wanted to see (with me!) was Limitless, a science fiction flick he'd seen before about a man who takes a drug that unlocks his ability to use the "other 80 percent of his brain." We went to see it and, as my son pointed out after the movie, all of what was portrayed was just impossible.

Why? I asked. And that's when my boy started telling me that any drug taken wouldn't work because "we cannot get much smarter." That is, without either:

  • "enlarging are brains" to contain more neurons
  • adding more connections between the neurons,
  • increasing speed of which neurons signal each other -- the latter of which my boy said would be hardly an improvement because "it would exhaust our energy." 

With my mind totally blown with these sensible arguments, I asked, "How on Earth do you know all this, boy?"

"I was reading your magazine, Dad."

*Awww... proud dad feelings* Anyway, I decided to read Fox's article and was delighted to find all of the arguments my son was giving in it.

Plus, I found this gem in a paragraph quoting Mark Changizi (@markchangizi), a theoretical neurobiologist, on why bigger brains (as in elephants) and their specializations (through compartmentalizations of functions) doesn't always equate to greater intelligence:
As you go from a mouse brain to a cow brain with 100 times as many neurons, it is impossible for neurons to expand quickly enough to stay just as well connected. Brains solve this problem by segregating like-functioned neurons into highly interconnected modules with far fewer long-distance connections between modules. The specialization between right and left hemispheres solves a similar problem; it reduces the amount of information that must flow between the hemispheres, which minimizes the number of long, interhemispheric axons that the brain needs to maintain. "All of these seemingly complex things about bigger brains are just the backbends that the brain has to do to satisfy the connectivity problem" as it gets larger, Changizi argues. "It doesn't tell us that the brain is smarter."
We like to think that our brains are pretty amazing, which they are. But, in short, Fox's entire article with Chiangizi's quote touches on a point we may not like to think about: our brain's evolved limits.

And it was this message that my son came away with after reading the article, phasing out any dream he might have had of altering his brain for supreme intelligence and power after his first viewing of the sci-fi flick.

Being the father I am, my advice to my son was this:

"You're right, you can't really do much with what we got despite whatever drugs people might say do wonders. Maybe, maybe, one day humankind will be able to create tiny microchips or something to implant in our brains that will expand our minds. But, what then? Once our brains possess the capacity to do all that is Google, will we then be happy? Probably not."

The fact is that our brains, despite all their glory, remain hard-wired with another evolved limitation that intelligence can't help, I argued. It's our need to seek out survival, food and health, shelter, and passing on of our genes.

Fox's fascinating article about intelligence aside, I told my boy that perhaps it's also time to look beyond what is intelligence, to what drives humankind's sense of purpose.

Have humans reached the limits of how complex our brain can be? Perhaps. But we know that within these limits, humans appear to have unlimited capacity of expression of creativity, be it through writing, music, or art.

When I first heard Joseph Campbell say, "Follow your bliss," I took that to mean that we can be accepting of what genetic predispositions our ancestors gave us, whether it be smarts, physical attractiveness, or an athletic body, and work with it toward something great, within or beyond our means.

The secret to life, if there be any, may be to just enjoy and develop our own talents to bring us all a bit of fun while we're all still around here.