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Evolution and the Incredible Brain


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Presentation by Aran Watson for the RYSE Center and CHASS. Human brain evolution and youth development, part 1.

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Evolution and the Incredible Brain

  1. 1. Evolution and The Incredible Brain: What Evolutionary & Neural Biology can teach us about… us.
  2. 2. But we work with youth in Richmond!? (i.e. why evolutionary biology?) <ul><li>Can be useful for us to take a step back and look at broader, more diverse perspectives of human development </li></ul><ul><li>Explore our understanding of functional vs. dysfunctional behavior </li></ul><ul><li>‘ Genetic’ basis of behavior- what do we actually know? </li></ul>
  3. 3. The Incredible Cockroach!
  4. 4. Incredible Cockroach Facts! <ul><li>Their most recent evolutionary leap took place between 50-150 million years ago </li></ul><ul><li>The are 7-11 times more impervious to radio-activity than humans </li></ul><ul><li>They breathe without lungs </li></ul><ul><li>They have been known to survive on almost anything and nothing (ex. surviving by licking glue off of stamps for years!) </li></ul><ul><li>The can survive decapitated for weeks! </li></ul>
  5. 5. If only we were so lucky …
  6. 6. Basic premise of evolution: <ul><li>Most successfully adaptation to environment survives (the rest don ’t…) </li></ul><ul><li>Context of survival (environment) is ever-changing, so evolution continues to come up with best strategies for survival (except for the cockroach, lucky bastards) </li></ul><ul><li>Complexity arises from this very long, ceaseless process of increasing competition </li></ul>
  7. 9. Peacock slide … .
  8. 11. The Selfish Gene! (Richard Dawkins) <ul><li>The gene is the most useful unit through which to conceptualize evolution (not the individual or species). </li></ul><ul><li>Plant and animal species are (merely) survival machines built to aid in the protection and propagation of genes. </li></ul><ul><li>Genes code (via synthesizing proteins) for certain ‘expressions’ as an attempt to survive and replicate themselves successfully </li></ul>
  9. 12. Competition selects for more adapted survival machines <ul><li>Plants photosynthesized directly… </li></ul><ul><li>Then animals ate plants… </li></ul><ul><li>Then animals ate animals! </li></ul><ul><li>(The elaboration of eating and not being eaten commences…) </li></ul>
  10. 13. As the environment changes, new adaptations succeed … <ul><li>Genes are ‘masters’ of behavior- kind of. Technically, all the can do is synthesize proteins, period. </li></ul><ul><li>Movement, muscle development, hearing, seeing, hiding, even emotions all developed (via selection) to aid in adaptive survival of the ‘survival machine’ in a predicted environment </li></ul><ul><li>The case of the Polar Bear </li></ul>
  11. 14. Successful prediction is the key to survival! <ul><li>Genes have to code with prediction in mind, though they must survive in unpredictable world. </li></ul><ul><li>Computer chess programs analogy </li></ul><ul><li>The more successful the prediction, or the capacity to make quick changes in relation to environment, the more likely to succeed. </li></ul>
  12. 15. Which brings us all the way forward in time to … . <ul><li>The BIG… </li></ul><ul><li>BAD… </li></ul>
  13. 16. BRAIN!
  14. 17. <ul><li>YES! </li></ul>
  15. 18. Humans have dinky little useless claws … <ul><li>Human survival was not dependent on: our powerful claws, fangs, cozy fur coats, immense size, camouflaged appearance, incredibly long noses, wing speed, sonar capacity, intimidating growl, or capacity to live decapitated trying to lick stamps. </li></ul><ul><li>We get cold really easy… </li></ul>
  16. 19. Human survival has primarily depended on two things: <ul><li>Our capacity to work together! </li></ul><ul><li>Our extreme adaptability! </li></ul><ul><li>This is thanks to… </li></ul><ul><li>Our BRAIN!!! </li></ul>
  17. 20. <ul><li>YES! </li></ul>
  18. 21. The neural advantage <ul><li>Increased capacity to observe, remember, learn, assess and make changes = increased successful adaptation to environment </li></ul><ul><li>Increasingly sophisticated communication = increased learning capacity </li></ul><ul><li>All of this = more PREDICTIVE power </li></ul>
  19. 22. Re-cap of genetically-driven evolution: <ul><li>Genes exert ultimate power over behavior; they are the policy-makers </li></ul><ul><li>Moment-to-moment decisions are taken up by the nervous system, organized by the brain; they are the executives </li></ul><ul><li>The more sophisticated brains (have) become, the more survival ‘decisions’ and ‘policies’ they become responsible for </li></ul><ul><li>Brains also begin to re-write policy, or override it (ex. humans using birth control) </li></ul>
  20. 23. Communication is essential for ‘ life learning ’ <ul><li>We rely on our powers of learning, sharing information, and functioning successfully in groups for survival </li></ul><ul><li>We have HIGHLY developed means for not just speaking, but ‘reading’ each other and our environment, learning from it, and responding to it </li></ul>
  21. 24. The Neo-Cortex <ul><li>Essential for development </li></ul><ul><li>of language acquisition </li></ul><ul><li>Size associated with social complexity- larger, more complex social groups of monkeys required larger neo-cortexes </li></ul><ul><li>Development especially correlated with females </li></ul>
  22. 25. The Mirror Neuron System <ul><li>Discovered by neuroscientists in Italy working with macaques </li></ul><ul><li>The same set of genes for performing & witnessing a behavior ( ‘monkey see, monkey do!’) </li></ul><ul><li>When we witness behavior with intention in others, our brains prime our nervous system to have the same experience </li></ul><ul><li>Serves to recognize INTENTION of acts in others (and is neurological basis for empathy & advanced learning capacity) </li></ul>
  23. 26. Why the BIG bad brain? <ul><li>Brain size required to accommodate such sophisticated neural processes </li></ul><ul><li>Human heads are so big we are actually born prematurely </li></ul><ul><li>Neurological processes so advanced that much of their development has to be postpartum, experience-mediated growth </li></ul>
  24. 27. Dr. Dimasio, internationally renowned neuroscientist: <ul><li>“ The brain is so complex it baffles even its own imagination.” </li></ul>
  25. 28. So … <ul><li>Humans are genetically designed to develop and adapt in real time in relation to our environment, coordinated by the brain. This is our survival ‘claw’. </li></ul><ul><li>A majority of this neurological development takes place in the first years of life in relation to primary caregivers. </li></ul><ul><li>The second greatest phase of neurological development takes place in adolescence, in which significant pruning of the neural synapses occurs as the brain seeks to consolidate information about experience into meaningful schemata. </li></ul>
  26. 29. What does this have to do with me (or community health)? <ul><li>Humans, like all living beings, have evolved to survive in this world </li></ul><ul><li>Our survival has been largely dependent on our sophisticated capacity to: learn, adapt, communicate, and work together </li></ul><ul><li>Our brain, utilizing its incredible subtlety and flexibility, coordinates this effort </li></ul><ul><li>By nature of its complexity and purpose, neurological development must occur in relation to experience vis-à-vis other brains </li></ul>
  27. 30. Violence & Trauma <ul><li>Multiple layers of violence that impact our development & self-efficacy </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Interpersonal </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Intergenerational </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Social & political violence </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Our learning about who we are, the world we live in, & how to survive shaped by: </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Our early relationships with our caregivers and community </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>histories of trauma and violence we have been exposed to </li></ul></ul>
  28. 31. As clinicians and community workers, it ’ s important that … <ul><li>We recognize that we are genetically encoded to learn from, adapt to, and survive our environment as best we can </li></ul><ul><li>Often, apparent behavioral dysfunction is understandably strategic when assessed from within the context through which the behavior was developed (moth in the flame analogy) </li></ul><ul><li>Our work with clients and in society in developing healthier minds and relationships might be served by taking our genetically encoded adaptability to our environment into account </li></ul>
  29. 32. A final thought:
  30. 33. Enjoy your rolling!