Why our minds have probably evolved as far as they can go

Illustration for article titled Why our minds have probably evolved as far as they can go

Humans evolving into hyper-intelligent beings is a powerful idea in science fiction, but that's probably where the idea will have to stay. Our brains have reached an evolutionary "sweet spot", and we can't get much smarter without making major trade-offs.

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That's the finding of psychologists Thomas Hills of the University of Warwick and Ralph Hertwig of the University of Basel. They have examined a number of studies, and they have come to one inescapable conclusion: there's a steep price to pay for enhanced brainpower, and it's almost certainly not a good deal from an evolutionary perspective.

They point to how groups of people with enhanced cognitive abilities - including "savants, people with photographic memories, and even genetically segregated populations of individuals with above average IQ" - and these groups generally suffer from much higher rates of cognitive disorders like autism, extreme synesthesia, and other neural disorders. The researchers also point to attention-focusing drugs like Ritalin, which can really help people with ADD but can actually decrease performance when taken by people with normal attention spans.

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Dr. Hillis explains their conclusions:

"These kinds of studies suggest there is an upper limit to how much people can or should improve their mental functions like attention, memory or intelligence. Take a complex task like driving, where the mind needs to be dynamically focused, attending to the right things such as the road ahead and other road users — which are changing all the time. If you enhance your ability to focus too much, and end up over-focusing on specific details, like the driver trying to hide in your blind spot, then you may fail to see another driver suddenly veering into your lane from the other direction.

"Or if you drink coffee to make yourself more alert, the trade-off is that it is likely to increase your anxiety levels and lose your fine motor control. There are always trade-offs. In other words, there is a 'sweet spot' in terms of enhancing our mental abilities — if you go beyond that spot — just like in the fairy-tales — you have to pay the price."

Of course, this still leaves open the possibility that a more radical adaptation could open the way to dramatically increased intelligence - although what exactly that would be is anybody's guess - but it does appear that we've reached the limits of incremental intelligence growth.

Via Current Directions in Psychological Science. Image by pixeldreams.eu, via Shutterstock.

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DISCUSSION

OK..this is going to sound like I am tooting my own horn...but this is my experience, and all experiences are equally valid right?

I have an almost photographic memory. I remember almost everything I pay attention to. I can tell your the fifth word on page 138 or the current edition of Starship Troopers for example.

I have trouble in social situations.

I can recite verbatim almost any lecture I attended, tell you the source from the notes I took in debate class, and recite what was said in my presences.

I don;t know why you are smiling.

I breezed through all my courses in college including calculus. I have had professors beg to have me stick around because I grasp the concept and see where new ones were forming. I can synthesis.

I have a list of rules I NEED to govern social reactions. Yes, I am frozen almost to inaction by meeting new people, and spend an hour performing or studying before I can talk to them.

I have over 100 movies memorized verbatim including framing, score, intonation, accent and motion in the scene. I have another 300 I can recall while they are running.

I don;t know why people touch.

I understand rocket science.

I joke I am the son of a German Pilot who was the son of a German Egineer, I am genetically close to Vulcan as you can get on this planet.

I spend my time with emotionality being either extremely hurt by people's rudeness, or not understanding that bullshit is part of social interaction.

I see the connections, everything, and that is my curse.

My wife has names for me, when she looks at me with sad eyes, and understands what it is like, she called me the Doctor, or Dr. Manhattan, or Sheldon. But at least like Sheldon, I can make people laugh :->