Our brains have been humanity’s best adaption. Despite sharing 90 per cent of our DNA with our primate cousins, it’s the faster evolution of our grey matter which has helped us rise to dominance while others are still chewing grass.
Our cerebral cortex (the part responsible for higher cognition) is disproportionately larger than those of the rest of the animal kingdom, and accounts for more than 80 per cent of our total brain mass. Overall, our total grey matter is seven times the mass of similar-sized animals – complete with 100bn neurons, 100,000km of interconnections, and an estimated storage capacity of a million gigabytes.
And scientists are discovering that our ability to create new brain cells is continuous. It’s possible at any age, and only requires a little application.
Why is this important? Unless you’ve been immune to technological change happening around you, all the signs are that the workplaces of the future could be automated rather than human, with decisions taken by silicon processors rather than molecular ones.
This is one of the key themes that will be debated at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s (CIPD) inaugural Festival of Work on 12-13 June at Olympia London.
By as early as 2029, it’s thought that robots will reach the tipping point where they have the processing power to outsmart their makers. Humans will have to work hard to prove that their thinking is better than a machine’s. In short, the future only favours those with the greatest ability to stay relevant, adapt, and demonstrate mental agility.
Could there be an answer to staying ahead of the pack? For many, the saviour is neuroscience, which seeks to understand more about how the human brain works.
A key part of neuroscience is its observation that our brains demonstrate “neuroplasticity” – they have the ability to reorganise neural pathways based on new experiences, something that is able to impact our cognitive function and lessen its decline. Studies have sought to show that this gives us the potential to increase our brain power.
For instance, a now-famous Harvard Medical School experiment found that mindfulness meditation can actually rebuild the brain, by increasing grey matter in the hippocampus – a region which plays an important role in learning.
So can we tap into our brains’ untouched potential? For some, brain training games do just that – short-lasting tricks and tips that improve our memories, but don’t really rewire who we are. However, others believe that we can increase our potential through science.
The holy grail of the latest strand of neuroscience is to understand how we can increase our so-called fluid intelligence – our underlying capacity to hold information in conscious memory and then manipulate it in order to solve complex problems or come up with new ideas.
While this topic is much less understood, what’s clear is that the neuroscience community is actively pushing the envelope to try to establish real insights that could help us use our brains better.
It’s already finding that the brain develops similarly among those who experience both success and setbacks, and there is greater understanding about the benefits of deploying parts of the brain used less regularly (which could be kept fresh by learning new skills or a new language).
Other researchers believe that even the simple act of smiling may be able to retrain our brains to look for positive rather than negative possibilities.
The science may not yet be complete, but the intent is there.
If humans really are to stay ahead of the game and see off algorithms, neuroscience could be what’s needed.