Why Humans Are So Smart…and Groovy

Intelligence, creativity, and your pruney brain.

Posted Oct 13, 2010

Grooved fingers make us smart. ...as do grooved brains.

When you are next in the shower, take a look at your wrinkled fingers. They aren't pretty to look at, but they help make you smart. Pruney fingers are not an accidental side effect of getting soaked as is typically believed, but are, instead, highly efficient rain treads that help us primates grip the world when it is wet (something we've recently been studying in the lab).

Without wrinkled fingers you would need to possess two categories of behavior, one for dry conditions, and one for wet. That would require more brain space than you can spare. Lucky for you, you can get by with just one set of behaviors ("all-weather-behaviors") because your fingertips and feet "know" when to change from race-tire-smooth to rain-tire-wrinkled.

Your wrinkles do a great job for your brain despite the fact that they are not smart in and of themselves -- they are inflexible, automatic switches, only knowing to do two things: wrinkle when wet, unwrinkle when dry.

The strategy of "subcontracting" out brain responsibilities to low-brow reflex-like mechanisms is one of the oldest tricks in evolution's book. "Lower" animals, from amoeba to insects, entirely rely on these tricks to give them their seeming sophistication. Their ability to expertly navigate their world, feed, survive and reproduce relies upon large numbers of thoughtless, knee-jerk mechanisms, some outside of the head (like your wrinkled fingers), and most of them in their heads.

When animals are in the environment for which their reflexes evolved, their behavior is seamlessly interlocked with their world. They appear utterly flexible, having all the response variability they'll ever need. Yet it is all undergirded by embarrassing inflexibility; their flexibility ends at the edge of their habitat, where the flexible-wonder becomes a stick-in-the-mud.

We humans are different. We may have a few automatic finger-wrinkling mechanisms and unthinking knee-jerking neural circuits, but those are the rare exceptions. Our brains have convoluted grooves, but we don't think in grooves. We are flexible. We are thoughtful. Merely getting food from a drive-through requires driving, reading, and calculating, three tasks that would be alien to your Pleistocene ancestors (as would be the "Double-Whipped Skim Banana Machiato Expressiccino with no foam" you ordered). And it was humans who invented cars, writing and math (not to mention coffee) -- that kind of creativity wouldn't be possible if our brains were buckets of pruney-finger-like mechanisms.

Ah, the creative human versus the mere sparkless beast!

But as intuitively reasonable as it sounds, this view is no longer tenable. Research over the last couple decades has shown that our brains are indeed "pruney," not the agile universal learning machines we imagine them to be.

We humans are as sparkless a beast as any other.

This is not to say we're not smart. We are smart, and -- this is crucial -- we get our intelligence because of the panoply of "grooves" in our heads. Our grooves make us smart because they are just the grooves needed for our ancestral life that gave us them. We look smart, but only in our natural environment. ...just as was the case for the "lower" animals we mentioned earlier.

How, then, is it that we are doing so many strange non-ape-ish things? We carry out all sorts of behaviors you shouldn't see apes doing not because we apes have been reshaped, but because culture has gone out of its way to shape itself to fit our groovy human self. In particular, culture has shaped itself to be "like nature," thereby best harnessing our ancient inflexible brains for doing something they weren't designed for, like successfully ordering coffee.

For example, as I argued in my book, The Vision Revolution, we're capable readers only because writing has culturally evolved to give us letter shapes that look like nature, just what our inflexible visual systems are good at processing. And as I argue in my upcoming book, Harnessed: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed Ape to Man, we can comprehend speech only because words have culturally evolved to sound like natural auditory events, just what our non-language auditory systems are competent at processing.

Although culture has managed to put great use to our brains, understanding the groovy nature of our brain has deep implications for creativity. Namely, we are much less creative than we think we are. The creativity that matters for the artist, scientist and entrepreneur is very far removed from the creativity needed in the environment of our ancestors. We may be the most creative animal, but we have evolved only as much creativity as was needed -- any extra would not be advantageous for our ancestors.

Modern idea-mongers want more. We want all the creativity we inherited, and then we want to amplify it a hundred-fold! Only by breaking out of our evolutionarily-needed creativity limits can we hope to personally become skilled idea-hunters. "Personally" is crucial here, because communities can be creative without creative individuals, due to the large numbers of members taking their spin at the idea-hunting roulette wheel.

If we can be harnessed to read and comprehend speech depite not having brains for reading or speech comprehension, could it be that we can also harness our brain for an enhanced level of creativity, beyond that which nature gave us?

I think so. And my advice in this regard I sum up in one word, "aloof", something I have written about, and something I will have a lot more to say about in the future...

Mark Changizi is Professor of Human Cognition at 2AI, and the author of The Vision Revolution (Benbella Books) and the upcoming book Harnessed: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed Ape to Man (Benbella Books).