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How Humans Ended Up With Freakishly Huge Brains

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Wow, I had no idea:

By uncovering and comparing other fossil skulls and endocasts, paleontologists documented one of the most dramatic transitions in human evolution. We might call it the Brain Boom. Humans, chimps and bonobos split from their last common ancestor between 6 and 8 million years ago. For the next few million years, the brains of early hominins did not grow much larger than those of our ape ancestors and cousins. Starting around 3 million years ago, however, the hominin brain began a massive expansion. By the time our species, Homo sapiens, emerged about 200,000 years ago, the human brain had swelled from about 350 grams to more than 1,300 grams. In that 3-million-year sprint, the human brain almost quadrupled the size its predecessors had attained over the previous 60 million years of primate evolution.

Fossils established the Brain Boom as fact. But they tell us next to nothing about how and why the human brain grew so large so quickly. There are plenty of theories, of course, especially regarding why: increasingly complex social networks, a culture built around tool use and collaboration, the challenge of adapting to a mercurial and often harsh climate—any or all of these evolutionary pressures could have selected for bigger brains.

Ultimately it was our genes that built our brains.

The human brain has 86 billion neurons in all: 69 billion in the cerebellum, a dense lump at the back of the brain that helps orchestrate basic bodily functions and movement; 16 billion in the cerebral cortex, the brain’s thick corona and the seat of our most sophisticated mental talents, such as self-awareness, language, problem solving and abstract thought; and 1 billion in the brain stem and its extensions into the core of the brain. In contrast, the elephant brain, which is three times the size of our own, has 251 billion neurons in its cerebellum, which helps manage a giant, versatile trunk, and only 5.6 billion in its cortex. Considering brain mass or volume alone masks these important distinctions.

Based on her studies, Herculano-Houzel has concluded that primates evolved a way to pack far more neurons into the cerebral cortex than other mammals did. The great apes are tiny compared to elephants and whales, yet their cortices are far denser: Orangutans and gorillas have 9 billion cortical neurons, and chimps have 6 billion. Of all the great apes, we have the largest brains, so we come out on top with our 16 billion neurons in the cortex. In fact, humans appear to have the most cortical neurons of any species on Earth. “That’s the clearest difference between human and nonhuman brains,” Herculano-Houzel says. It’s all about the architecture, not just size.

The human brain is also unique in its unsurpassed gluttony. Although it makes up only 2 percent of body weight, the human brain consumes a whopping 20 percent of the body’s total energy at rest. In contrast, the chimpanzee brain needs only half that. Researchers have long wondered how the human body adapted to sustain such a uniquely ravenous organ. In 1995, the anthropologist Leslie Aiello and the evolutionary biologist Peter Wheeler proposed the “expensive tissue hypothesis” as a possible answer. The underlying logic is straightforward: Human brain evolution likely required a metabolic trade-off. In order for the brain to grow, other organs, namely the gut, had to shrink, and energy that would typically have gone to the latter was redirected to the former. For evidence, they pointed to data showing that primates with larger brains have smaller intestines.

A few years later, the anthropologist Richard Wrangham built on this idea, arguing that the invention of cooking was crucial to human brain evolution. Soft, cooked foods are much easier to digest than tough raw ones, yielding more calories for less gastrointestinal work. Perhaps, then, learning to cook permitted a bloating of the human brain at the expense of the gut. Other researchers have proposed that similar trade-offs might have occurred between brain and muscle, given how much stronger chimps are than humans.

Collectively, these hypotheses and observations of modern anatomy are compelling. But they are based on the echoes of biological changes that are thought to have occurred millions of years ago. To be certain of what happened, to pinpoint the physiological adaptations that made the brain’s evolutionary growth spurt possible, we will have to dive deeper than flesh, into our very genome.

I'm digging these info graphics on brain size and neuron count. 

gorilla human brain size neuron count infographic elephant How Humans Ended Up With Freakishly Huge Brains WIRED

brain density neurons chart How Humans Ended Up With Freakishly Huge Brains WIRED

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