Having walked on the Moon, discovered the Higgs Boson and figured out how gravity works, it’s 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 ponder advanced scientific concepts. 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 concepts. To figure out how the brain’s primordial machinery is adapted for this new type of challenge, the researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to pinpoint which parts of the brain became active as their subjects 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 capabilities, 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 we’d looked at abstract concepts 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 capabilities that help us understand scientific concepts. 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 brain’s capacity for “causal motion visualization” was probably originally very handy when tracking moving objects that early humans 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 concepts 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 concepts 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 concepts such as “velocity.”
Finally, the idea of “energy flow,” which helped early humans understand how energy from the Sun transfers heat to other objects, is controlled by parts of the brain that were stimulated when participants pondered “electric fields.”
Summing up their findings, the study authors claim that through education, it is possible to repurpose the brain’s ancient systems, adapting the basic capabilities that once helped our ancestors survive to process abstract scientific concepts.
“If we can map out science concepts in the brain, we can gear the way we instruct or test, based on which parts of the brain are active when you’re thinking about them,” says Mason.
No matter how much you learn, however, you’ll always basically be a caveman with "science brain".