What can we do with the future rather than wait for it? Much more. In principle, try to recognize it, to know about it in order 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 how our brain, the most complex organ in the universe, will evolve. Will such a challenge be possible? For this it is very useful to learn how our brain came to be what it is in the present, and to learn from that to hypothesize how we will be in the near or distant future. Let’s see what it’s all about.
For many years research on the human brain focused on studying the increasing size of the skull in hominids. Thus, it was observed that as Homo sapiens approached, each species was larger than expected. This increase came 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 cerebral volume. And this is no coincidence: this area houses the most complex functions of the brain. And particularly, a portion of that cortex evidenced abrupt growth in humans: the most anterior of the frontal lobe or prefrontal cortex, the one just behind our forehead, which is the one that makes us human because it regulates the distinctive functions of our species. Some of them are our capacity 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 other 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. We have also created elaborate art, organized political and economic systems, and we can transmit the accumulated knowledge through generations through explicit teaching. All these elements, among others, form our culture.
While 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 pressure to be socially intelligent that gave rise to these transformations that extended the increase of intellect into 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 established between the different parts that make up the nervous system. There is a very interesting phenomenon called the “Flynn Effect”, which shows that each generation obtains higher scores in intelligence tests than the previous one. The multifactorial hypothesis, which postulates that improvements in nutrition, the tendency to smaller families and greater environmental complexity, seem to be the most accurate explanation for 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. Considering the evolutionary history of the human brain that has been going on for millions of years and that there has been no noticeable change in physical appearance for 200,000 years (despite the impressive transformations that life has undergone over the centuries, and especially in recent times with the explosion of technology), it is difficult to think that the brain structure will change drastically. It is worth asking, then, what transformations our constantly adapting brain will need since we are faced with a new way of processing information mediated by technology. This also leads us to reflect on the extent to which our brain can sustain such operational stimulation and multiple tasks.
Perhaps the next step may not be a natural evolution, but relates 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 as relevant in the cultural and technological world in which we develop. On the other hand, cultural and technological adaptation would have a prominent role. With advances in medicine and health care, currently between 95% and 99% of births are successful, most people reach reproductive age and have a longer life expectancy than twenty years ago. So one might think that it is culture – rather than genetic inheritance – that determines who survives today and will leave offspring. In addition, we are now able to manipulate genes through artificial selection and modify biological traits. Recent studies suggest that certain aspects of aging are genetically programmed, which opens up the possibility of thinking about its manipulation. Technology is enabling the development of artificial tissues, such as skin made from plastic, and devices such as artificial retinas or cochlear implants. Probably, in the future, it will be possible to create or regenerate the neuronal 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, let us think that we already have medicines to improve the performance of 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, a technology that makes it possible to record and process brain waves in real time and translate them into action in the outside world. It works by interpreting and transferring the 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 application possibilities. Of course it could eventually be used in healthy people. Theoretically, it is possible to enhance sensory or cognitive functions by means of brain implants or external devices such as perceiving more colours or having “night” or “360 degree” vision. These ideas have led to reflection on the possibility of providing humans with unlimited memory or calculus skills, producing a superintelligence that would bring us into a post-human era. In conjunction with other technologies, such as GPS, the brain-machine interface has multiple potential applications in everyday life, for example, when it comes to driving a car or piloting an airplane. The development of these devices is being made possible by 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, as it represents a fusion of the human body with artificial devices. In this sense, several researchers maintain that we can become Homo cyberneticus, a human species slightly assisted by some technological improvements.
It is often said that the future has arrived. Of course this is a contradictory phrase, because the future by definition is something to come. Although it seems that this time he really has already come and, on top of that, he doesn’t like to wait. Be that as it may, let’s have the suitcases ready.