What are brains for?

brainsopenBrains. We all have them, but what are they for?

You can get a good idea of an animal’s abilities by looking at its brain.  Bird brains are much more geared up to visual processing than human brains, and in dogs the part of the brain that interprets smell is 40 times larger than in humans.

So, is this what brains are for?

So, is this what brains are for?

What takes up most space in a human brain? The neo-cortex, or grey matter. It’s unique to mammals, and humans have a far larger neo-cortex than any other mammal. But what is it for?

Unscrew the top of your head and open up your neo-cortex. Take a good look inside. You’ll find all kinds of stuff in here that other animals don’t have. Shopping lists, song lyrics, juicy gossip, instructions for downloading stuff from iTunes. Lots and lots of stuff, filling up every available nook and cranny. But what is it for?

Everything in the neo-cortex is an abstract symbol of some kind. Numbers, letters, words, concepts – the neo-cortex is stuffed full of them.

Hang on, I just had a really, like, amazing thought. It's in here somewhere.

Wait, I just had a really, like, amazing thought. I’m sure it’s in here somewhere.

It’s believed that the neo-cortex evolved primarily to provide us with better social skills. But if you switch on the TV and watch the news headlines, it will quickly become apparent that “better social skills” doesn’t equate to “getting on well with your neighbours.”

My brain is bigger than yours.

My brain is bigger than yours.

The pinnacle of social skills is language, and when you have language you don’t have to simply kill your enemies. You can threaten them, bitch about them behind their back, or persuade your friends to help you kill them. Language is power. And power is an evolutionary advantage.

So that’s what brains are for. Surviving. And thriving. And killing. And singing songs about it afterwards.

Brains make us awesome. They make us into monsters. And they make us aware that we are monsters. Being a monster and being awesome go together. You can’t have one without the other.

The most amazing thing about our brains is their universal capacity. You see, language is all about abstraction. If you name an object, you’ve created a mental model of it. That lumpy thing on the ground has become a “rock.” Now you can expand that concept. Put some “rocks” together in the right way, and what do you get? A “cathedral”.

Well, yeah, it's just a pile of rocks if you break it down.

It’s just a pile of rocks, but boy is it impressive.

Once you can create abstract symbols, there’s no stopping you. Literally. You can create poems, you can create scientific laws, and you can create space stations.

Our brains give us power over others, and they give us power over the world around us. Without them, we are short-lived, socially-inept animals living in the dirt. With them, we are like gods.

Gods, and monsters.


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17 responses to “What are brains for?

  1. “Surviving. And thriving. And killing. And singing songs about it afterwards.” And then posting to your blog about it, right?

  2. Daniel Wolpert argues that the sole purpose for brains is to control physical movement

    It’s an interesting observation that the only way our body interacts with environment that does not involve muscles is sweating.

    The example of a mollusk which digests its brain for nutrition as soon as it attaches itself to a rock and does not need to move around any more is also interesting.

  3. I’m loving all these comments and replies. Def gave insight while making me laugh. The laughter is all that will help me survive this Monday.

  4. Echoing agrudzinsky, I think brains exist to help us find food, find mates, and avoid predators. Of course, social brains help us team up with others to do those things more effectively, at least until we get in competition with them.

  5. A monster who knows he’s a monster. Sounds about right. Fuc**ng brain!

  6. I loved this post. I agree that our brains can make us monsters. But also transcendentally kind. I pulled “transcendentally” out of my neocortex. Did it belong there? I don’t know. I wish I could see like a bird.

  7. I like my neocortex. With that I can use a telescope, a microscope, and night vision glasses. I definitely don’t want to smell like a dog. Sonetimes ignorance is bliss.

  8. Fantastic post! Thank you Steve.

  9. Interesting analysis, however it’s not the brain that makes us the monster. The brain is merely the conduit. The brain is a humble servant taking information and interpreting it as we tell it to interpret. That’s where choice comes in to play.

  10. That’s quite a negative view. I’m convinced most people are good. But we hear of the bad ones more. Name one person that has had a major impact on our world. Why did you just think of Hitler rather than Newton?

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