The fancier the cortex, the smarter the brain?

Why are some people smarter than others? In a new article in Current Directions in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, Eduardo Mercado III from the University at Buffalo, The State University of New York, describes how certain aspects of brain structure and function help determine how easily we learn new things, and how learning capacity contributes to individual differences in intelligence.

Cognitive plasticity is the capacity to learn and improve such as solving problems and remembering events. Mercado argues that the structural basis of cognitive plasticity is the cortical module. Cortical modules are vertical columns of interconnected . Across different areas of the , these columns vary in the number and diversity of neurons they contain. Identifying how cortical modules help us learn cognitive skills may help explain why variations in this capacity occur — that is, why people learn skills at different rates and why our ability to learn new skills changes as we age.

Studies examining a number of different species have shown that, on average, a larger cortex predicts greater intellectual capacity. The source of this correlation is unclear, but Mercado believes that a "more expansive cortex provides more space within which a larger quantity and greater diversity of cortical modules can be distributed." In other words, Mercado notes that when it comes to intellectual potential, it is not the absolute or even relative size that is important, but how many cortical modules (with various types of neurons) are available. These features of cortical organization and function determine how effectively our brain distinguishes events. This ability to differentiate events may be what enables us to learn cognitive skills.

One implication of this proposal is that experience can be as important as genetics in determining intellectual capacity. Specifically, structural changes of cortical modules generated by development and learning experiences may also contribute to individual differences in intelligence. As these networks of neurons develop over time, their diversity increases, leading to further increases in cognitive plasticity.

This research has important implications for improving educational techniques and can potentially lead to new methods for rehabilitating patients suffering from brain damage. In addition, understanding how cortical modules function may lead to new ways of increasing intelligence. However, Mercado cautions that "new technologies for increasing cognitive plasticity have ethical implications far beyond those raised by doping in sports." He concludes, "The phrase 'changing your mind' may soon take on a whole new meaning."

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Citation: The fancier the cortex, the smarter the brain? (2009, July 17) retrieved 16 July 2019 from
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Jul 17, 2009
Is it the general consensus of Neuroscientists that the variances in measurable intelligence are hardware issues - meaning its just a matter of numbers of cells, density, and arrangements, etc, of brain cells that dictate capabilities?

Some of us in AI research believe that there are hardware minimums required with both silicon and carbon based intelligence, but for the most part, we believe its a software problem. Evolution has produced many fantastic brains in other species over the billions of years here on earth that didn't reach the cognitive ability of modern humans (i.e. Neanderthals). We don't believe you reach a magical number of memory and processing capability - then poof - critical thinking is born... Rather we believe that very clever methods of filtering, arranging, and analyzing inputs is the true delta between smart creatures (i.e. some parrots) and those that put satellites in orbit...

If it really is a hardware issue, should we just tell those with small heads or brain injury - that they will never function like the rest of us? And those that are a little bit slow with a normal looking brain - well they just must have an undiagnosed weakness in brain matter - no way they need to reprogram their brain to learn more efficiently...


Jul 17, 2009
The physical elaboration in brain tissue represents the development of sub-domains of cognitive processing. The brain naturally groups these developing sub-domains into physical twists and turns in order to minimize the distance between neurons within a local processing area.

However, whether such physical elaborations determine something as slippery as "intelligence" is debatable. One could just as well fill a mind with a diverse universe of nonsense as not, and still wind up with a twisty little cabbage in there.

Jul 17, 2009
The brain is poised to evolve. The more information you give it the better it is.

Jul 17, 2009
The brain is poised to evolve.

Probably only indirectly related, at best, but this article still made me think of this...

Jul 17, 2009
Regarding what big tone said.....

It is both a software and a hardware problem. For example, refined sugar consumption. If people have information about the health effect of chronic consumption of refined sugar, they might decide to do not consume it. It seems a software problem here because the effect of information will cause a wide array of intelligent decisions.

Now if someone consumes refined sugar for a long period, it will damage the brain, therefore the capacity to compute. Now it becomes a hardware problem. Even if you now install the software (present the individual with the information), the hardware is broken and will not be able to run the program and take the optimal decisions.

But I agree with big tone that the effect of software in performance is very impressive. Just few examples are teaching people about financial decisions, health decisions, emotional decisions and so on will greatly improve their level of adaptation to their environments - it will make them more intelligent.

Jul 18, 2009
This has been known for a long time, dudes. That's why Fluoride is in the water (wherever they can get away with it) and the addictive crop dusting poison known as 'aspartame' is being sold to people. It's called purposeful and directed hardware destruction. Get them while they are young - short circuit that learning capacity before it develops. Good 'ole fascist eugenics in action.

Set 'em up - knock 'em down.

Jul 18, 2009
Nice, KBK.

Jul 20, 2009

What do you propose human "software" is made of? You mentioned magic in your post, and I wonder if "software" really is a codeword for magic too. I think if you consider yourself to be a materialist, than there is only hardware to be concerned about. Your theory seems to suggest there is some kind of metaphysics or something that is responsible for our consciousness. I subscribe to the idea that consciousness is an elaborate illusion manifested by the hardware we have. Lose the hardware, lose consciousness. Ask psychiatrists who treat those suffering from psychosis and you may find how easy it is to manage someone's level of consciousness by using psychotropic medications.

If I had a better suggestion as to the use of the software analogy to the brain, the neurotransmitters, other chemicals and white matter would fit the category

Jul 20, 2009
NonRational - I wasn't suggesting anything beyond mainstream science... Simply put - hardware is all things organic related to the brain - software is the methods used by the brain to manipulate inputs and information... Read the article on physorg titled Scientists reveal secret of girl with all seeing eye - and what I am saying will make more sense

Jul 21, 2009
NonRational - I wasn't suggesting anything beyond mainstream science... Simply put - hardware is all things organic related to the brain - software is the methods used by the brain to manipulate inputs and information... Read the article on physorg titled Scientists reveal secret of girl with all seeing eye - and what I am saying will make more sense

I happened to read that article before coming back here to see what others had said. It is truly fascinating. I'm still not sure software actually exists, but that the word itself is a shortcut to refer to physical processes. The brain does not not direct these processes to my understanding, but is merely host to them. Still, I'm not sure. What a mysterious organ!

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