Did standing up change our brains?

by Rachel Gleeson
Credit: Rice University

Although lots of animals are smart, humans are even smarter. How and why do we think and act so differently from other species?

A young boy's efforts while learning to walk have suggested a new explanation, in a new journal paper jointly authored by his father and grandfather, both academics at the University of Sydney.

In the latest issue of the scientific journal, Frontiers in Neuroscience, the son-and-father team Mac and Rick Shine suggest that the big difference between humans and other species may lie in how we use our brains for routine tasks.

They advance the idea that the key to exploiting the awesome processing power of our brain's most distinctive feature - the cortex - may have been to liberate it from the drudgery of controlling routine activities.

And that's where young Tyler Shine, now two years old, comes into the story. When Tyler was first learning to walk, his doting father and grandfather noticed that every step took Tyler's full attention.

But before too long, walking became routine, and Tyler was able to start noticing other things around him. He was better at maintaining his balance, which freed up his attention to focus on more interesting tasks, like trying to get into mischief.

How did Tyler improve? His father and grandfather suggest that he did so by transferring the control of his balance to 'lower' parts of the brain, freeing up the powerful cortex to focus on unpredictable challenges, such as a bumpy floor covered in stray toys.

"Any complicated task - like driving a car or playing a musical instrument - starts out consuming all our attention, but eventually becomes routine," Mac Shine says.

"Studies of brain function suggest that we shift the control of these routine tasks down to 'lower' areas of the brain, such as the basal ganglia and the cerebellum.

"So, humans are smart because we have automated the routine tasks; and thus, can devote our most potent mental faculties to deal with new, unpredictable challenges.

"What event in the early history of humans made us change the way we use our brains?

Watching Tyler learn to walk suggested that it was the evolutionary shift from walking on all fours, to walking on two legs.

"Suddenly our brains were overwhelmed with the complicated challenge of keeping our balance - and the best kind of brain to have, was one that didn't waste its most powerful functions on controlling ."

So, the Shines believe, those first pre-humans who began to stand upright faced a new evolutionary pressure not just on their bodies, but on their brains as well.

"New technologies are allowing us to look inside the while it works, and we are learning an enormous amount," Mac Shine says.

"But in order to interpret those results, we need new ideas as well. I'm delighted that my son has played a role in suggesting one of those ideas.

"Hopefully, by the time he is watching his own son learn to walk, we will be much closer to truly understanding the greatest mystery of human existence: how our brains work."

More information: The article is available online: journal.frontiersin.org/Journa… nins.2014.00090/full

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May 27, 2014
Codswallop. Probably. After all the ability to shift new tasks to lower sections of the brain probably exists in all animals. And is probably something that evolved into existence 100's of millions years ago.

It is however an interesting observation and I agree that tasks takes more effort to do when learning how to do them than is required once known. But all creatures have the ability to learn new tasks and it is quite possible that even insects have this ability - although it may be very difficult to prove.

Learning something new and then doing it often enough that it becomes second nature and thus somehting that you don't have to think about.
May 27, 2014
It's an interesting idea, but hardly rates a write-up. Interesting ideas without supporting evidence are a dime a dozen.
May 31, 2014
The idea is somewhat poorly worded.
Here is an attempt to fix this:

Imagine many of the cells anywhere in your brain are able to store input. Setting aside the source of input for a moment imagine further that what is learned (stored) is no longer accessible. Suddenly what was "routine" (stored) must be stored again. Either near the inaccessible storage or elsewhere.

The above wording and simplification now dovetails with all current accepted research, evidence and interpretation.

All life forms do this. How and why? Because all storage of input is not exclusively assigned to neurons to those life forms without a brain.

Knowing exactly where and how memory and learning is stored demystifies 90% of "the greatest mystery of human existence".

Many want the mystery to continue. To many the brain is sacred. Akin to the heresy all religion once bore and bears to this day. Mystery has no future or perspective.

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