What can we do with the future more than wait for it? Much more. In principle, try to recognize it, know it to be prepared. Because that possibility of looking beyond the immediate, over many others, is a very human quality. And if we talk about the future, an even greater challenge is to think about the evolution of our brain, the most complex organ in the universe. Is such a challenge possible? For this it is very useful to learn how our brain came to be what it is in the present, and to aprtir of that hypothesize how we will be in the near or distant future. Let's see what this is about.
For many years, research on the human brain focused on studying the increase in skull size in hominids. Thus, it was observed that as it approached the Homo sapiens, each species was larger than expected. This increase occurred at the expense of the development of the cerebral cortex. In the modern human being, the cerebral cortex and its connections occupy 80% of the brain volume. And this is not casual: that area hosts the most complex functions of the brain. And particularly, a portion of that cortex showed abrupt growth in human beings: the most anterior of the frontal lobe or prefrontal cortex, which is just behind our forehead, which is what makes us human because it regulates the distinctive functions of our species. Some of them are our ability to develop a plan and execute it, to have abstract thinking, to carry out logical, inductive and deductive reasoning, to make decisions, to infer the feelings and thoughts of others, to inhibit impulses and for so many others. functions that make us able to live in society. We are the only species capable of developing mental symbols to represent the world around us, as language does. Also, we have created elaborate art, organized political and economic systems, and can transmit the accumulated knowledge through the generations through explicit teaching. All these elements, among others, form our culture.
Although it is still unknown what exactly produced this change in the size of the brain, an explanation known as the "social intelligence hypothesis" states that it was the pressure to be socially intelligent that gave rise to these transformations that extended the Intellect increase in other non-social domains. Numerous investigations show that there is a significant relationship between the size of the social group, the frequency of social learning behaviors and innovation and the size of the neocortex. However, this does not fully explain our cognitive abilities.
The most relevant for the transformation of brain functioning would be the complexity given by the connections that are established between the different parts that constitute the nervous system. There is a very interesting phenomenon called the "Flynn Effect", which shows that each generation gets higher scores on intelligence tests than the previous one. The multifactorial hypothesis, which postulates that the improvements in nutrition, the tendency to smaller families and the greater environmental complexity, seems to be the most accurate explanation to explain this phenomenon. In this sense, the environmental conditions in which we develop and live today, from global climate change to patterns of food, sleep and use of technology, give us clues about how we can be in the future.
Then we can finally ask ourselves: what will our brain be like in the future? In anatomical terms, the brain will not change in centuries. Taking into account the evolutionary history of the human brain that went on for millions of years and that there has not been a notable change in physical appearance since 200,000 years ago (this, despite the impressive transformations that life had through centuries, and especially in these recent times with the explosion of technology), it is difficult to think that the brain structure will be drastically modified. It is worth wondering then what transformations our brain needs in constant adaptation since we are faced with a new way of processing information mediated by technology. This also leads us to reflect to what extent our brain can sustain this operative stimulation and those multiple tasks.
Perhaps the next step may not be a natural evolution, but may be related to the influence of genetic engineering and biotechnology to expand capabilities. There are authors who argue that evolution, in terms of natural selection, is no longer so relevant in the cultural and technological world in which we develop. In contrast, cultural and technological adaptation would have a prominent role. With advances in medicine and Health Care, currently between 95% and 99% of deliveries are successful, most people reach reproductive age and have a longer life expectancy than twenty years ago. So, you can think that it is culture – more than genetic inheritance – that determines who survives today and will leave offspring. In addition, at present, we are able to manipulate genes through artificial selection and modify biological traits. Recent studies suggest that certain aspects of aging are genetically programmed, which opens the possibility of thinking about their manipulation. Technology is enabling the development of artificial tissues, such as skin built from plastic, and devices such as artificial retinas or cochlear implants. Probably, in the future, it is possible to create or regenerate the neural tissue that makes up the brain. This would have important implications in the treatment of diseases that today have no cure, such as dementia. Without going any further, think that we already have drugs to improve performance in certain brain dysfunctions. Drugs such as antidepressants, methylphenidate for the treatment of attention deficit and dopaminergic agents for the treatment of Parkinson's and Huntington's disease have meant a great improvement in the quality of life of these people.
But perhaps the paradigmatic example of technological evolution is the brain-machine interface, technology that allows to record and process brain waves in real time and translate them into an action in the external world. It works by interpreting and transferring neuronal electrical activity to a device or prosthesis that is stimulated to generate motor commands. Although this technology is still in the research stage, it has multiple possibilities of application. Of course it could be used eventually in healthy people. Theoretically, it is possible to enhance sensory or cognitive functions through brain implants or external devices such as perceiving more colors or having "night" or "360 degrees" vision. These ideas have led us to reflect on the possibility of providing humans with unlimited memory or calculation skills, producing a superintelligence that would allow us to enter an era of posthuman. In conjunction with other technologies, such as GPS, the brain-machine interface has multiple potential applications in everyday life, for example, in what concerns the driving of a car or piloting an airplane. The development of these devices is being possible thanks to advances in disciplines such as nanotechnology, biotechnology, neuroscience and information technology. It has been suggested that the brain-machine interface is bringing us closer to a technological revolution, in that it represents a fusion of the human body with artificial devices. In this sense, several researchers argue that we can become Homo cyberneticus, a human species slightly assisted by some technological improvements.
Many times it is said that the future has arrived. Of course it is a contradictory phrase, because the future by definition is something to come. Although it seems that this time he really came and, above, he does not like to wait. Anyway, we have ready the suitcases.
Facundo Manes He holds a PhD in Sciences from the University of Cambridge, a neurologist, neuroscientist, researcher from CONICET and from the Australian Research Council (ACR) Center of Excellence in Cognition and its Disorders, President of the INECO Foundation and professor at Favaloro University (Argentina) and University of California San Francisco -UCSF- (USA)