Wednesday, December 07, 2011

When Will We Develop a Human Superbrain?

Pharmacological enhancers of cognition promise a bright new future for humankind: more focus, more willpower, and better memory, with applications ranging from education to military combat. Underlying such promises is a linear, more-is-better vision of cognition that makes intuitive sense. This vision is at odds, however, with our understanding of cognition’s evolutionary origins. The mind has evolved under various constraints and consequently represents a delicate balance among these constraints. Evidence of the trade-offs that have shaped cognition include (a) inverted U-shaped performance curves commonly found in response to pharmacological interventions and (b) unintended side effects of enhancement on other traits. Taking an evolutionary perspective, we frame the above two sets of findings in terms of within-task (exemplified by optimal-control problems) and between-task (associated with a gain/loss asymmetry) trade-offs, respectively. With this framework, psychological science can provide much-needed guidance to enhancement development, a field that still lacks a theoretical foundation. _Thomas Hills
The above is the abstract from a recent paper published in Current Directions in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, titled: Why Aren’t We Smarter Already: Evolutionary Trade-Offs and Cognitive Enhancements. The authors suggest that we are not likely to develop enhanced intelligence for humans anytime soon, for a variety of reasons. More:
Just as there are evolutionary tradeoffs for physical traits, Hills says, there are tradeoffs for intelligence. A baby’s brain size is thought to be limited by, among other things, the size of the mother’s pelvis; bigger brains could mean more deaths in childbirth, and the pelvis can’t change substantially without changing the way we stand and walk.

Drugs like Ritalin and amphetamines help people pay better attention. But they often only help people with lower baseline abilities; people who don’t have trouble paying attention in the first place can actually perform worse when they take attention-enhancing drugs. That suggests there is some kind of upper limit to how much people can or should pay attention. “This makes sense if you think about a focused task like driving,” Hills says, “where you have to pay attention, but to the right things—which may be changing all the time. If your attention is focused on a shiny billboard or changing the channel on the radio, you’re going to have problems.”

It may seem like a good thing to have a better memory, but people with excessively vivid memories have a difficult life. “Memory is a double-edged sword,” Hills says. In post-traumatic stress disorder, for example, a person can’t stop remembering some awful episode. “If something bad happens, you want to be able to forget it, to move on.”

Even increasing general intelligence can cause problems. Hills and Hertwig cite a study of Ashkenazi Jews, who have an average IQ much higher than the general European population. This is apparently because of evolutionary selection for intelligence in the last 2,000 years. But, at the same time, Ashkenazi Jews have been plagued by inherited diseases like Tay-Sachs disease that affect the nervous system. It may be that the increase in brain power has caused an increase in disease.

Given all of these tradeoffs that emerge when you make people better at thinking, Hills says, it’s unlikely that there will ever be a supermind. “If you have a specific task that requires more memory or more speed or more accuracy or whatever, then you could potentially take an enhancer that increases your capacity for that task,” he says. “But it would be wrong to think that this is going to improve your abilities all across the board.” _MedXpress
Very disappointing, if true. But is it possible that the authors overlooked something? After all, a few million years ago, chimpanzee psychologists and philosophers must have been thinking and saying much the same about the prospects for superior chimp brains, yes?

But in fact, a chimpanzee superbrain did develop, which we call the "human brain."
Despite the minute genetic differences between human brains and their primate relatives, Homo sapiens cognitive ability is significantly more advanced, enabling us to “make complicated tools, come up with complicated culture and colonize the world,” said lead author Mehmet Somel, a postdoc studying human evolutionary genomics at the University of California, Berkeley. Because humans spend more than a decade developing into adults and learning, far more than the two or three years of chimpanzee adolescence, researchers have long suspected that developmental genes are involved in human brain evolution. “And the idea that brain gene expression profiles might be different between species was proposed 40 years ago,” Somel added. _Scientist
We are just beginning to learn the genetic and epigenetic specifics which led to the divergence of the human brain from the brain of the common ape ancestor. Fascinating changes in the details of gene expression in the brain created a whole new level of cognitive functioning. There is no reason to doubt that similar genetic and epigenetic changes could lead to even newer and higher levels of cognition.

The human brain has borrowed various hacks and kludges from brain and nerve evolution all the way back down the evolutionary tree. Some of these hacks and kludges are potentially limiting in terms of other, concurrent hacks and kludges that might otherwise be utilised. But there are potential hacks and kludges which might replace the limiting hacks, and some of these potential hacks might very well allow an entire train of further, enhancing hacks to follow.

That is a possibility that most mainstream psychologists and philosophers fail to understand -- generally because they have adopted groupthink as their modus operandi. This is a common failure of academics from the inbred world of the university culture. Perhaps that is why so many of the world-changing visionaries and billionaires of our day have been high school and college dropouts. They escaped before their brains could be gelded.

There are a number of ways in which we might approach the human superbrain. Simple pharmacologic cognitive enhancers, such as stimulants, are not likely to provide the broad spectrum enhancement we will need. But there are a number of prosthetic enhancements for the human brain which would give us near quasi-superbrain status, over time. Certainly the things that humans can do when empowered by modern computing and telecommunications tools would astound most humans of past eras.

But what we really want, are superbrains that continue working even if the power goes out or the batteries run down. For that, we will need genetic and epigenetic change. So how can we go about inducing these genetic changes without running into the problems that so many highly intelligent persons and breeding groups have run into?

That will be a topic of future articles.

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