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The Gregarious Brain and cognitive skills

I find via Mind­Hacks that NYT Mag­a­zine has pub­lished a great arti­cle titled The Gre­gar­i­ous Brain, sub­ti­tled “Williams syn­drome — a genet­ic acci­dent that caus­es cog­ni­tive deficits-”. The writer, David Dobbs, does an spec­tac­u­lar job at explain­ing that syn­drome in the con­text of what cog­ni­tive skills are and how they evolved. Some sam­ple quotes:

  • In the view of two of Bellugi’s fre­quent col­lab­o­ra­tors, Albert Gal­abur­da, a Har­vard Med­ical School pro­fes­sor of neu­rol­o­gy and neu­ro­science, and Allan Reiss, a neu­ro­sci­en­tist at the Stan­ford School of Med­i­cine, Nicki’s learned facil­i­ty at sports talk illus­trates a cen­tral les­son of Williams and, for that mat­ter, mod­ern genet­ics: genes (or their absence) do not hard-wire peo­ple for cer­tain behav­iors. There is no gene for under­stand­ing cal­cu­lus. But genes do shape behav­ior and per­son­al­i­ty, and they do so by cre­at­ing brain struc­tures and func­tions that favor cer­tain abil­i­ties and appetites more than oth­ers.”
  • …This doesn’t mean that spe­cif­ic behav­iors are hard-wired. M.I.T. math majors aren’t born doing cal­cu­lus, and peo­ple with Williams don’t enter life telling sto­ries. As Allan Reiss put it: “It’s not just ‘genes make brain make behav­ior.’ You have envi­ron­ment and expe­ri­ence too. By envi­ron­ment, Reiss means less the atmos­phere of a home or a school than the end­less string of chal­lenges and oppor­tu­ni­ties that life presents any per­son start­ing at birth.”
  • (Talk­ing about when our ances­tors start­ed to live in larg­er groups) “But the big­ger groups imposed a new brain load: the mem­bers had to be smart enough to bal­ance their indi­vid­ual needs with those of the pack. This meant coop­er­at­ing and exer­cis­ing some indi­vid­ual restraint. It also required under­stand­ing the behav­ior of oth­er group mem­bers striv­ing not only for safe­ty and food but also access to mates. And it called for com­pre­hend­ing and man­ag­ing one’s place in an ever-shift­ing array of alliances that mem­bers formed in order not to be iso­lat­ed with­in the big­ger group…The big­ger an animal’s typ­i­cal group size (20 or so for macaques, for instance, 50 or so for chimps), the larg­er the per­cent­age of brain devot­ed to neo­cor­tex, the thin but crit­i­cal out­er lay­er that accounts for most of a primate’s cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties. In most mam­mals the neo­cor­tex accounts for 30 per­cent to 40 per­cent of brain vol­ume. In the high­ly social pri­mates it occu­pies about 50 per­cent to 65 per­cent. In humans, it’s 80 percent.“ 
  • Gen­er­at­ing and detect­ing decep­tion and veiled mean­ing requires not just the recog­ni­tion that peo­ple can be bad but a cer­tain lev­el of cog­ni­tive pow­er that peo­ple with Williams typ­i­cal­ly lack. In par­tic­u­lar it requires what psy­chol­o­gists call “the­o­ry of mind,” which is a clear con­cept of what anoth­er per­son is think­ing and the recog­ni­tion that the oth­er per­son a) may see the world dif­fer­ent­ly than you do and b) may actu­al­ly be think­ing some­thing dif­fer­ent from what he’s saying.“  

Enjoy the full article The Gre­gar­i­ous Brain.

You can learn more about cog­ni­tive skills and our ances­tors at our recent post, titled Apes, Speedy Learn­ers, and new Brain Fit­ness Chan­nel, that shows the amaz­ing abstract think­ing skills of orang­utans. Anoth­er relat­ed post on nature vs. nur­ture: Richard Dawkins and Alfred Nobel: beyond nature and nur­ture.

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