We humans have far more control over our environment than any other species on planet Earth. We have developed an innate propensity for making and using tools to such a degree that we can now fundamentally change – through architectural, engineering and scientific innovation – the very environments in which we exist and with which we interact every day.
In modifying places in which we spend thousands of hours: our homes, schools, places of work and leisure – we exert more power than any other species in shaping our own brains.
Iterative cycles of human brains adapting to environments and environments being adapted by human brains have enabled our species to thrive in a wider variety of ecological niches than any other mammal across the length and breadth of the entire globe. Of vital importance to our adaptability is the emergence of cognitive faculties enabling us to circumvent the painstakingly slow processes involved in evolutionary change that drive behavioural adaptations in most other multicellular species.
Darwin’s finches on the Galapagos Islands, for example, had to wait for many generations to evolve a useful adaptation that conferred a survival advantage over their competitors. This is because the vast majority of genetic mutations do not yield any useful, adaptive characteristics. For genetic mutation(s) to result in, say, a beak of appropriate dimensions to access an otherwise inaccessible food source, a great many decades of annual mating must pass before this random process eventually hits the jackpot.
Humans confronted with a similar scenario would likely invent a tool to access the food in question. Offspring, or anyone else for that matter, could then mimic the movements necessary to successfully make and manipulate the tool. This is all thanks to “mirror” neurons, which provide us with our natural ability to convert observed movements into movements that we perform ourselves (In his TED talk VS Ramachandran describes the importance of mirror neurons quite beautifully). Behavioural adaptation through tool use is thus not, unlike genetic adaptation, limited to being spread down through subsequent generations.
Humans are not the only creature to use tools. New Caledonian crows are top of the pecking order when it comes to birds intelligent enough to use tools. They use a variety of different tools and in the appropriate sequential order, to obtain a food reward that would otherwise be beyond their reach. Each bird is clever enough to figure this out for themselves, or at least to learn from others, but their capacity to propagate this information beyond their immediate habitat is prohibited by a lack of sufficiently sophisticated communication tools.
Chimpanzees strip the leaves off of long straight sticks to use the resulting tool as a means to “fish” for termites in a termite mound. However, as E. O. Wilson famously pointed out: non-human primates do not have the necessary intelligence to prepare a neat stack of fishing sticks the night before. Non-human species only make and use tools as and when they are needed. In more recent times exceptions to this rule have been observed.
It was long thought that we humans were the only species with sufficient foresight to predict the need for certain tools in the future and to prepare them in advance. However a chimpanzee residing in a Scandinavian zoo turned this assumption on its head by building a stack of stones in the morning to hurl at visitors later on once the zoo had opened to the public!
That said, we still enjoy the unique status of being the only species able to share knowledge of making and using tools through verbal or written communication. This has propagated knowledge of all sorts of tools way beyond our own communities, to other members of our species across the entire globe – eliminating the need to reinvent the wheel and build upon the creativity of others.
Arguably the kings of tool use (homo sapiens exluded) are surely the bonobos. The below footage shows our closest primate cousin making tools out of stone, just as our caveman ancestors did, and using them to perform a variety of scraping, cutting and boring purposes.
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I’ve been devouring popular science books over the last year, with a view to writing a book of my own, and there is no doubt that THE BRAIN THAT CHANGES ITSELF stands out head and shoulders above the rest. Through a series of well-researched scientific breakthroughs explained via a variety of compelling real-life stories, it effortlessly convinces the reader that the human brain is a highly adaptable, “plastic” organ capable of dramatically rewiring itself, at any stage in life, to enable significant recovery from even catastrophic brain damage.
This book is nothing less than inspirational. The 20th Century doctrine of the “unchanging brain” – hardwired throughout childhood and fundamentally unalterable by the end of adolescence – is well and truly turned on its head by this remarkable compilation of case studies to the contrary.
The miracles of modern neuroscience: 65 year old Professor Pedro Bach-y-Rita crawling around on his hands and knees, just like a baby, en route to recovering his ability to first walk, then talk and ultimately go back into teaching, after his brainstem stroke. Ingenious machines, sending computer-generated sensory information to a person’s tongue in place of visual or vestibular information lost to brain damage, enable people to see and walk again. The once seriously learning disabled Barbara Arrowsmith Young now heading up a school that uses novel programmes she developed to treat herself by forcing underdeveloped brain areas to up their game through intensive training sessions.
All of these and much, much more demonstrate that the brain CAN change. All that is required is a knowledge of exactly what is required to encourage those changes to occur – all clearly outlined in this book – and then dedication to putting the hours in to make sure those changes happen. It turns out that neuroplasticity can even explain how the miraculous psychological changes that can be enabled by psychiatric counselling might be underpinned by physical changes in the brain. Sexual attraction, love, pain, obsession, anxiety, compulsions and habits are all fundamentally influenced by neuroplasticity and the sooner the world gets to grips with this the better. Even putting the hours in using your imagination to practice cognitive skills to improve your mental abilities does so via physical changes to the number and connectivity of brain cells.
If I ran a school of brain science I would make this compulsary reading. Partly because the “neuroplastic revolution” that the author, Norman Doidge, envisages is extremely empowering to all people; not just the old and neurologically-impaired, but for every single human being on earth that wishes to improve their brain function. But also because it captures an essential truth about science – professors, medics and other experts who share with us their wisdom are not infallible. They do not, CAN not, know it all. They can only peddle the best of what has stood the test of time since they acquired their body of knowledge combined with the new research that has been confirmed by subsequent independent research. There is always the possibility that they, and their forefathers got the wrong end of the stick – which is almost certainly what happened with the concept of neuroplasticity. Consequently, we must all be critical of what we read and remain open to new findings and novel ways of thinking about how the world, and our own brains, truly work.
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