Snakes on a Brain & other Neurological Evolutions to ponder!

This past week brought news from the journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, that specialized nerve cells in the brains of macaque monkeys respond to images of snakes. The lead researcher, Dr. Lynne Isbell of UC-Davis, surmised that natural selection has favoured primates that strongly respond to snake imagery

This makes good sense to me. And I think it’s a short jump to consider that we-humans likewise respond to snake imagery, and so can recognize a neural developmental process that strongly correlates to the theory of Epigenesis, or environmental influence. Likewise this development aligns with the theory of Neuroplasticity which asserts that our embodied brain structure is malleable over time. 

I don’t know about you but I find it reassuring to learn that my ‘Pulvinar’ has evolved to help me recognize and respond to snakes!

In the case of snake recognition, it is surmised that this genetic expression goes back millions of years and extends, by inference, to the notion that humans carry this feature in our DNA (like our primate cousins). 

Which leads me to think … what are we exposing ourselves to in this day and age that could or will influence our neurology to such an extent that we force a genetic change in our neurology?  Might this be a process favouring or diminishing species survival? Or might it be something that arises because of repeated exposure or is trained into our mindset? We’re all plugged in and wired-up these days – how will this influence our neural code in the future? How about the neural codes of wealthy populations – whose lifestyles are considerably healthier than the several billion people who are considered impoverished – will this force a divergence in future neural development to the point where differences will be heritable? 

When I think of education and learning in this context I consider myriad patterns of thoughts and actions that might lead to long-lasting, even permanent neural impressions. 

First and foremost, however, I think of the introduction of mass schooling and its interruption of learning patterns that had been ongoing in human communities in many cases, for thousands of years. How might this disruptive event come to shape our neural structure? And what might the consequences be for us as a species as a result of expressing a changing neural structure – for surely it can be inferred that our neurology is likely to change as a result of this shift. 

 Humans used to learn largely by modeling and doing; now that has been replaced by other, mainly-cerebral activities. What might be the long-term neurological implications of this shift, I wonder.

I’ve just begun reading Free to Learn (2013, Basic Books) by (evolutionary) psychology professor Peter Gray and I’m betting he will pose some interesting answers to my question.

For information on my book: Learn Your Way! SelfDesigning the Life You Really Want, Starting Now (2011) and to order a copy, go here.

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