Whence Better Brains?

The cover story of the July Scientific American is on brain physics. It persuades me that raw brain hardware was more important than I’d thought in our history.  Here is my current best guess on brain history.

Across diverse species we see strong convergence in brain organization, especially conditional on brain size. Species differ more in their brain hardware components, and their energy sources. For example, primates have innovative cell designs allowing higher neuron density. Given access to such cells, primates could afford to evolve bigger brains, and then bigger pair-bond-based social groups.

Humans found a way to use big primate brains to support big-group far-traveling long-life versions which could access richer energy sources, which in turn supported large energy-hungry brains. Humans found a way to use those huge old social brains to support robust accumulation of culture, which is our main advantage over other primates. This was probably supported by only minor changes in brain organization.

While the brains of smarter humans today may use a better set of long term connections, probably most of their advantage comes from using more energy-intensive brain hardware. So it probably wasn’t until our recent cheap energy era that high IQ humans gained large advantages. The tendency 0f smarter humans to choose lower fertility lowers their advantage today.

Many quotes from that article:

As brains expanded in mammals and birds, they almost certainly benefited from economies of scale. For example, the greater number of neural pathways that any one signal between neurons can travel means that each signal implicitly carries more information, implying that the neurons in larger brains can get away with firing fewer times per second. Meanwhile, however, another, competing trend may have kicked in. “I think it is very likely that there is a law of diminishing returns” to increasing intelligence indefinitely by adding new brain cells. … Size carries burdens with it, the most obvious one being added energy consumption. In humans, the brain is already the hungriest part of our body: at 2 percent of our body weight, this greedy little tapeworm of an organ wolfs down 20 percent of the calories that we expend at rest. In newborns, it’s an astounding 65 percent. …

For decades this dividing of the brain into more work cubicles was viewed as a hallmark of intelligence. But it may also reflect a more mundane truth …: specialization compensates for the connectivity problem that arises as brains get bigger. As you go from a mouse brain to a cow brain with 100 times as many neurons, it is impossible for neurons to expand quickly enough to stay just as well connected. Brains solve this problem by segregating like-functioned neurons into highly interconnected modules, with far fewer long-distance connections between modules. The specialization between right and left hemispheres solves a similar problem; it reduces the amount of information that must flow between the hemispheres, which minimizes the number of long, interhemispheric axons that the brain needs to maintain. “All of these seemingly complex things about bigger brains are just the backbends that the brain has to do to satisfy the connectivity problem” as it gets larger … “It doesn’t tell us that the brain is smarter.” …

Neurons do get larger as brain size increases, but not quite quickly enough to stay equally well connected. And axons do get thicker as brains expand, but not quickly enough to make up for the longer conduction delays. …

Unlike in most other mammals, cortical neurons in primates enlarge very little as the brain increases in size. A few neurons do increase in size, and these rare ones may shoulder the burden of keeping things well connected. But the majority do not get larger. Thus, as primate brains expand from species to species, their neurons still pack together almost as densely. So from the marmoset to the owl monkey—a doubling in brain mass—the number of neurons roughly doubles, whereas in rodents with a similar doubling of mass the number of neurons increases by just 60 percent. That difference has huge consequences. Humans pack 100 billion neurons into 1.4 kilograms of brain, but a rodent that had followed its usual neuron-size scaling law to reach that number of neurons would now have to drag around a brain weighing 45 kilograms. …

Having smaller, more densely packed neurons does seem to have a real impact on intelligence. … [Researchers] reviewed several traits that predict intelligence across species (as measured, roughly, by behavioral complexity) … “The only tight correlation with intelligence, … is in the number of neurons in the cortex, plus the speed of neuronal activity,” which decreases with the distance between neurons and increases with the degree of myelination of axons. Myelin is fatty insulation that lets axons transmit signals more quickly. …

In fact, neuroscientists have recently seen a similar pattern in variations within humans: people with the quickest lines of communication between their brain areas also seem to be the brightest. One study … used functional magnetic resonance imaging to measure how directly different brain areas talk to one another—that is, whether they talk via a large or a small number of intermediary areas. … Shorter paths between brain areas correlated with higher IQ. … [Others] compared working memory (the ability to hold several numbers in one’s memory at once) among 29 healthy people. … People with the most direct communication and the fastest neural chatter had the best working memory.

It is a momentous insight. We know that as brains get larger, they save space and energy by limiting the number of direct connections between regions. The large human brain has relatively few of these long-distance connections. But … these rare, nonstop connections have a disproportionate influence on smarts: brains that scrimp on resources by cutting just a few of them do noticeably worse. …

There is another reason to doubt that a major evolutionary leap could lead to smarter brains. Biology may have had a wide range of options when neurons first evolved, but 600 million years later a peculiar thing has happened. The brains of the honeybee, the octopus, the crow and intelligent mammals, Roth points out, look nothing alike at first glance. But if you look at the circuits that underlie tasks such as vision, smell, navigation and episodic memory of event sequences, “very astonishingly they all have absolutely the same basic arrangement.” Such evolutionary convergence usually suggests that a certain anatomical or physiological solution has reached maturity so that there may be little room left for improvement. …

So have humans reached the physical limits of how complex our brain can be, given the building blocks that are available to us? Laughlin doubts that there is any hard limit on brain function the way there is one on the speed of light. “It’s more likely you just have a law of diminishing returns,” he says. “It becomes less and less worthwhile the more you invest in it.” Our brain can pack in only so many neurons; our neurons can establish only so many connections among themselves; and those connections can carry only so many electrical impulses per second. Moreover, if our body and brain got much bigger, there would be costs in terms of energy consumption, dissipation of heat and the sheer time it takes for neural impulses to travel from one part of the brain to another.

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  • Aron

    “primates have innovative cell designs allowing higher neuron density”

    Someone work on the mock ad for the human body download from heaven. I’m not saying that human is better. I’m just saying that *being* human is clearly better. Who would argue?

  • So it probably wasn’t until our recent cheap energy era that high IQ humans gained large advantages. The tendency of smarter humans to choose lower fertility lowers their advantage today.

    It does not need to be a large advantage, as natural selection can act on small differences in reproductive success over a long time, but the high IQ of humans relative to, say, other primates, suggests that the highest IQ humans had higher fitness than their peers for a long period of our evolution.

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  • Maybe I’m just an Austro-hack, but here is Hoppe on the issue.


    Regarding the limited number of neurons and subsequent connections, LSD and MDMA have been shown to open new neuron connections, even in adults.

    Some of these were sensory – and useless intellectually. They were frequently characterized by the stereotypical “seeing a smell” or “hearing yellow”, visual hallucinations, etc.

    However, some subjects showed a -permanent- rise in IQ test scores after having taken LSD, and more pronounced spikes while under its effects (tripping?). They also showed benefits in other cognitive, deductive, and academic testing.

    The tests show few patterns for predicting benefits in terms of strength, or specific test-section.
    The only predictions I could make from the evidence are
    – gains were more likely in young men
    -large spikes were likely to be in the deductive reasoning category.
    – the higher pre-LSD IQ of the participant, the more likely they were to show gains. Of course the majority of people bombed the tests while tripping all together. Interestingly, the lower the base IQ was, the larger the margin of loss.

    If the higher IQ predicts a larger marginal gain, and the lower IQ predicts a larger marginal loss, what would we call that? A multiplier?

    I need to take another look at the MDMA test results. I don’t recall them well, but I know “emotional intelligence” and empathy dramatically spiked.

    I guess the moral of the story is that smart people should do LSD?

  • John Maxwell IV

    “While the brains of smarter humans today may use a better set of long term connections, probably most of their advantage comes from using more energy-intensive brain hardware. So it probably wasn’t until our recent cheap energy era that high IQ humans gained large advantages.”

    This seems like a somewhat testable prediction. Do smarter people eat more?

    • Doug S.

      Some fictional evidence on that count.

      More seriously, there probably isn’t all that much difference. Some athletes both expend and take in far more calories than most other people, but I doubt that there’s all that much of a difference in brain energy use between healthy humans.

  • Drewfus

    Robin, i just made a comment here that was accepted but hasn’t shown up.