What We’ve Learned About Our Brain in the Last 10 Years

The human brain has for long been the center of attention, right from scientists, researchers to philosophers– its mystique and immense capability has shocked as well as fascinated man since ages. All our lives are governed by our brains and the state of the brain determines how healthy or otherwise our lives shall be. This is why getting to know one’s own mind is of great importance. It could reveal a lot about us and also about the other animals we share this planet with.

Brain, if used in the right manner, could help us accomplish so many great things. This is why scientists and researchers have given prime importance to the study of the structure of the brain and its workings. Talking about brain and scientists, it is always suspected that Albert Einstein used a little more of his brain capacity than the rest of us; and therefore he was able to decode many mysteries of the Universe. His brain has since then been under study.

If the day comes when we are able to decode how to make the brain work better in a healthy way, we might be able to change the course of our own future. So what have we learnt so far about our brains in the last 10 years or so?

Humans chose to have stronger brain than muscles

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So the fact that has come to light is that humans might have traded weaker muscles for stronger brains. In a research which pitted the apes against humans, scientists have noted that the prime difference between apes and humans is that, we have larger energy-hungry brains. In fact, many are of the opinion that it was actually the development of the brain that created the gap between humans and apes in the 6 million years of evolution.

Our human brain in general, consumes 20% of our body’s energy – this energy could be redirected to other parts of our bodies to give us stronger muscles. But humans choose to have better shaped brains. Recently, news published in the PLoS Biology showed how our metabolic activity for different organs has evolved over time.

This means that if you take 2000 calories per day – your brain alone uses 500 calories to function. This is again attributed to the number of neurons that are present in the brain.

Earlier, scientists suggested that the metabolism of the stomach affected the brains. But now recent studies seem to suggest that humans have actually traded their metabolism for stronger brains. This can also be seen in the structure of our ancestors – they had an ape-like structure. Today’s humans are much skinnier in built. But it must be noted that our skin tissues, kidneys and other organs have remained the same. At the same time, today we have much better technology – hence higher use of intelligence. Hence, we can ourselves come to the conclusion that humans might have preferred this way of survival, over ruling the jungle law “survival of the fittest”.

The ‘Special’ Human Brain

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There was a time when scientists were of the belief that all brains including the human brain and the animal brain was made up of the same features. This means that they had the same number of neurons. So it was believed that two brains which were of the same size should have the same number of neurons. Needless to say we have come a long way from that belief, because if that were true, then an average cow’s brain would be equivalent to the brain of a chimpanzee. But albeit we have seen that the chimpanzee living in the forests has to make some complex decisions than the average cow has to. So can we say that these two brains are equal? The answer is perhaps no.

But about one thing the researchers were right – the larger the brain, the more neurons and the more cognitive ability the brain has. So by this definition, probably elephants and not humans should have been the most intelligent beings on this planet.

So why is the human brain so special? We have already said that human brains use as much as around 20% of the body’s energetic intake daily. It is not the largest, but it is special in the way it uses the energy of the body. So with that respect, we can say that most animals that have smaller brains or brains equivalent of our size do not provide ample energy to their brains. They simply cannot afford to do so.

Take an ape for example. It has to climb trees, and move from one branch to another. For that, it needs the strength of its arms and muscles. It therefore puts much greater importance to the energy on its muscles. These are the natural ways things have taken course.

Also, the size of the brain depends on the size of the body. You cannot eat food like a primate and still have the same number of neurons for your brain. That is practically not possible.

Are we really smarter than animals?

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While the battle of the smartest brain is still on, it must be good to check out the background for a few in the animal kingdom. Are we really smarter? Some scientists say no. Just because we are not able to understand them or they do not understand us does not mean that we are smarter than them.

“For millennia, all kinds of authorities – from religion to eminent scholars – have been repeating the same idea ad nauseam, that humans are exceptional by virtue, that they are the smartest in the animal kingdom,” Dr. Arthur Saniotis from the University of Adelaide says.

Professor Henneberg from the school of medical Sciences also says Many quadrupeds leave complex olfactory marks in their environment, and some, like koalas, have special pectoral glands for scent marking. Humans, with their limited sense of smell, can’t even gauge the complexity of messages contained in olfactory markings, which may be as rich in information as the visual world.

Even though these statements are valid, there is no scientific data to back this up. But we have scientific data to back up why humans are smarter than the other animals of the animal kingdom and the reasons are pretty valid.

So what makes us smarter?

There has to be something which we have which other animals do not have. Given our abilities to lead a much more complex lives than the regular animals, often people have questioned that if we do not have larger brains, how are we then able to process so much information?

Recent studies have confirmed that it has to do with the number of neurons that are present in the brain. The more the number of neurons in the brain, the smarter a primate’s brain will be. This is the only thing which separates our brain from the other primates. We have to thank our ancestors for choosing more number of neurons rather than large muscles for survival.

So what is the special secret? How did we come to be able to host such a large number of neurons and outnumber other species? Scientists say that the sole reason us humans were able to have more number of neurons is because we learnt how to cook. We cook our food and the animals don’t – this seems to be the prime reason that our brains have developed to this extent.

As already mentioned, the food which the primates eat, do not provide for development of the brain in a proper way. Similarly if we start feeding ourselves as the animals did, then we would start to behave like them – basically have decreased cognitive abilities. The only difference is that we cook our food and this is what makes us have an edge. At least that is what the scientist Suzana Herculano-Houzel believes.

Future computing and human brains

The human brain has often been compared with the computers. In fact it could also be said that the human brains are much more effective ‘devices’ than the computers. It consumes much less power – lesser than even a jackfruit and it can literally play your favorite music, keep your life in order and perform day to day tasks that you don’t even count as tasks anymore. So this machine keeps your life in order. In fact, researchers are of the opinion that neuromorphic computer systems might change the course of this world and how we operate it. It has great industrial and economic potential as well. With our endless strides in technology, we may one day finally be able to unravel the mysteries of the human brain and in fact have the technology to even replicate it.

 

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