Having walked on the Moon, discovered the HiggsBoson and figured out how gravity works, its safe to say humans are pretty good at doing science. Our brains, however, were not originally designed for space travel or particle physics, which poses the question: How does the human brain adapt its ancient functions for cutting-edge science?
To try and answer this question, researchers from Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania took a look at what happens in the brains of physics students while they mull advanced scientific ideas. The results of their study are published in the journal Psychological Science.
While the participants in the study were all highly educated scientists, their brains were no different from those of the very earliest humans, who faced their greatest challenges in the untamed jungles and plains of the prehistoric world, rather than the lab. As such, their brains were and are hardwired with all sorts of capabilities designed to help them survive in the wild.
However, with nature now more or less conquered, these ancient brain systems are no longer needed for their original purposes, and are more commonly used for grappling with abstract scientific notions. To figure out how the brains primordial machinery is adapted for this new type of challenge, the researchers use functional magnetic resonance imaging( fMRI) to pinpoint which parts of the brain became active as their topics thought about 30 different scientific notions.
An analysis of their results led them to suggest that the human brain is inherently programmed with four fundamental abilities, each of which was in some way integral to our early survival as a species, yet which now contribute to our aptitude for science.
Study co-author Rob Mason told IFLScience that this was the first time wed looked at abstract conceptions taught in a classic education setting, and found that brain areas that typically respond to more primitive things responded to physics terms.
The human brain is hardwired with four basic abilities that help us understand scientific notions. Carnegie Mellon University
Amazingly, by looking at the combinations of brain regions activated by each of the 30 concepts, the researchers were able to predict which of these the participants were thinking about.
For instance, the brains capability for causal motion visualization was probably originally very handy when tracking moving objects that early humen wanted to either avoid or eat. The regions of the brain associated with this function were found to be activated when participants thought about abstract notions related to motion, such as momentum.
The second basic cognitive function relates to the ability to perceive periodicity, which would have helped ancient humans notice regular natural events such as lunar cycles. The brain regions involved in this process responded to theories that are related to periodicity, like wavelength.
Brain regions involved in algebraic representation, which refers to the ability to calculate unknown values, became active when participants mused over ideas such as velocity.
Finally, the idea of energy flowing, which helped early humans understand how energy from the Sun transfers heat to other objects, is controlled by parts of the brain that were induced when participants meditated electric fields.
Summing up their findings, such studies authors claim that through education, it is possible to repurpose the brains ancient systems, adapting the basic abilities that once helped our ancestors survive to process abstract scientific concepts.
If we can map out science conceptions in the brain, we are capable of gear the way we instruct or exam, based on which parts of the brain are active when youre thinking about them, tells Mason.
No matter how much you learn, however, youll always basically be a caveman with “science brain”.