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What makes people smarter than different animals? New analysis provides an intriguing reply


People are unrivalled within the space of cognition. In spite of everything, no different species has despatched probes to different planets, produced lifesaving vaccines or created poetry. How info is processed within the human mind to make this doable is a query that has drawn infinite fascination, but no definitive solutions.

Our understanding of mind perform has modified over time. However present theoretical fashions describe the mind as a “distributed information-processing system”. Which means it has distinct parts, that are tightly networked by means of the mind’s wiring. To work together with one another, areas trade info by means of a system of enter and output indicators.

Nevertheless, that is solely a small a part of a extra advanced image. In a examine revealed in Nature Neuroscience, utilizing proof from totally different species and a number of neuroscientific disciplines, we present that there isn’t only one sort of data processing within the mind. How info is processed additionally differs between people and different primates, which can clarify why our species’ cognitive skills are so superior.

We borrowed ideas from what is named the mathematical framework of data principle – the examine of measuring, storing and speaking digital info which is essential to expertise such because the web and synthetic intelligence – to trace how the mind processes info. We discovered that totally different mind areas in truth use totally different methods to work together with one another.

Some mind areas trade info with others in a really stereotypical approach, utilizing enter and output. This ensures that indicators get throughout in a reproducible and reliable method. That is the case for areas which are specialised for sensory and motor features (resembling processing sound, visible and motion info).

Take the eyes, for instance, which ship indicators to the again of the mind for processing. The vast majority of info that’s despatched is duplicate, being supplied by every eye. Half of this info, in different phrases, isn’t wanted. So we name one of these input-output info processing “redundant”.

However the redundancy gives robustness and reliability – it’s what permits us to nonetheless see with just one eye. This functionality is crucial for survival. In actual fact, it’s so essential that the connections between these mind areas are anatomically hard-wired within the mind, a bit like a phone landline.

Nevertheless, not all info supplied by the eyes is redundant. Combining info from each eyes finally permits the mind to course of depth and distance between objects. That is the premise for a lot of sorts of 3D glasses on the cinema.

That is an instance of a essentially totally different approach of processing info, in a approach that’s larger than the sum of its components. We name one of these info processing – when advanced indicators from throughout totally different mind networks are built-in – “synergistic”.

Synergistic processing is most prevalent in mind areas that help a variety of extra advanced cognitive features, resembling consideration, studying, working reminiscence, social and numerical cognition. It isn’t hardwired within the sense that it could change in response to our experiences, connecting totally different networks in numerous methods. This facilitates the mixture of data.



The extra a area of the human mind had expanded throughout evolution in dimension relative to its counterpart within the chimp, the extra this area relied on synergy. Photograph credit score: Pixabay CC0

Such areas the place numerous synergy takes place – largely within the entrance and center of the cortex (the mind’s outer layer) – combine totally different sources of data from your entire mind. They’re due to this fact extra extensively and effectively related with the remainder of the mind than the areas which take care of main sensory and movement-related info.

Excessive-synergy areas that help the combination of data additionally usually have numerous synapses, the microscopic connections that allow nerve cells to speak.

Synergy and evolution

We needed to know whether or not this potential to build up and construct info by means of advanced networks throughout the mind is totally different between people and different primates, that are shut family members of ours in evolutionary phrases.

To seek out out, we checked out mind imaging knowledge and genetic analyses of various species. We discovered that synergistic interactions account for a better proportion of complete info stream within the human mind than within the brains of macaque monkeys. In distinction, the brains of each species are equal by way of how a lot they depend on redundant info.

Nevertheless, we additionally appeared particularly on the prefrontal cortex, an space within the entrance of the mind that helps extra superior cognitive functioning. In macaques, redundant info processing is extra prevalent on this area, whereas in people it’s a synergy-heavy space.

The prefrontal cortex has additionally undergone vital growth with evolution. After we examined knowledge from chimpanzee brains, we discovered that the extra a area of the human mind had expanded throughout evolution in dimension relative to its counterpart within the chimp, the extra this area relied on synergy.

We additionally checked out genetic analyses from human donors. This confirmed that mind areas related to processing synergistic info usually tend to categorical genes which are uniquely human and associated to mind improvement and performance, resembling intelligence.

This led us to the conclusion that extra human mind tissue, acquired because of evolution, could also be primarily devoted to synergy. In flip, it’s tempting to invest that the benefits of larger synergy might, partially, clarify our species’ extra cognitive capabilities. Synergy might add an essential piece to the puzzle of human mind evolution, which was beforehand lacking.

Finally, our work reveals how the human mind navigates the trade-off between reliability and integration of data – we’d like each. Importantly, the framework we developed holds the promise of essential new insights into a wide selection of neuroscientific questions, from these about basic cognition to problems.

Emmanuel A Stamatakis is Lead, Cognition and Consciousness Imaging Group, Division of Anaesthesia, at College of Cambridge. Andrea Luppi is PhD candidate in Neuroscience at College of Cambridge. David Menon is Professor and Head of Division of Anaesthesia at College of Cambridge.

This text first appeared on The Dialog.

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