Of shrinking brains and modern anxieties

September 12, 2014 at 12:22 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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A recent piece in Discover magazine highlights research on changes in brain size over the last 20 000 years. Contrary to what you might expect, the findings seem to point to decreasing size up until very recently (the last century or so, when better nutrition and public health measures became available). The article doesn’t mention gender differences (men typically have bigger brains than women) or health issues (some big brains can be a sign of big problems), but it suggests various hypotheses about why the changes may have happened, making for an entertaining read.

(Not as entertaining, however, as Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Galapagos, one of my ten books every scientist should at least know about, in which one of the hypotheses is delightfully explored. Vonnegut takes the idea that we’re dumbing down, living through the rise of the ‘idiocracy’, and extrapolates it far into the future.)

Rumour has it that IQ measures, those sure and certain guides to human ability, are also not soaring like they used to. (That’s debatable; a recent meta-analysis confirms the Flynn effect.) Shrinking brains, diminishing smarts: that’s the assumption. One researcher in the Discover piece argued that, “As complex societies emerged, the brain became smaller because people did not have to be as smart to stay alive.” (In other words: blame welfare.)

Cro-Magnon folk didn’t take WAIS tests, so it’s hard to assess this claim. And — here’s an unscientific argument! — it doesn’t fit with what I’m hearing from people I’ve talked to about this. If they feel they’re getting stupider, it’s because the world around them is getting so much more complicated than it used to be. If people have less ‘grey matter’ (and white matter, without which the famous grey stuff would be a splodge of useless gloop), they’re definitely doing more with it. Especially if they’re reading, watching or listening to the media.

Our modern anxieties may not be as severe as our Cro-Magnon ancestors’, but I find it hard to believe that those early humans had nearly as many of them. A modern person may not worry as much about survival (although too many still have to — a point it may be easier to overlook when you hail from the upper echelons of academia). But we moderns have huge fears about getting on, doing the right thing, keeping up with the neighbours, etc. etc.

Here’s a list of just a few of the modern anxieties we’re expected to concern ourselves with these days.

  • Computers — are they safe and secure? Are they destroying your health? What are all those updates actually doing to them? What are they doing, under those smooth bland surfaces? Can you trust online sites?
  • Privacy — do you have any left? If not, why aren’t you panicking? Go and read Paul Bernal.
  • Cars — should you feel guilty about damaging the planet? Or yourself? Cars are bad for the health.
  • Health — don’t even start. Driving’s the least of it: the list of what you should be doing, eating, drinking — or not — is endless.
  • Energy — almost all of it seems to be obtained in harmful or ethically dubious ways, except possibly the stuff you can’t afford.
  • Food — ditto. Are you eating meat? Eat less. Is your fish responsibly sourced? Are you sure? Are you a milk drinker or soya eater? Feel the guilt: you’re helping to ruin goodness knows how many environments.
  • Other goods — probably ditto. Why aren’t you taking the time to research who’s nice and who’s nasty in the corporate world?
  • International finance — any civilisation that thinks it’s a good idea to hand over its monetary systems to a gang of smart young computer buffs with less empathy than your average potato is surely doomed. We tried it; they gave us the Great Recession. Have we sent them to their bedrooms (or to jail) and cut their pocket money? Have we changed the system so they can’t do it again?
  • Careers — there’s someone on Twitter or Facebook who’s half your age and is bragging about doing twice as much. The sensible thing would be to pity them for having been brought up to be such a shameless vulgar narcissist, but chances are you’ll feel the social pressure and worry that you ought to be working even harder. (In all the spare time you aren’t using up pandering to all the other anxieties.)
  • International politics — it is highly likely that there is nothing you can do that will make any difference whatsoever to the multifarious stupid, nasty, disgusting and cruel human behaviours currently disgracing the planet. (I wrote a whole book about cruelty and what to do about it, and that didn’t make a difference that I know of. Odd, eh?). But you’re expected to know about them, worry about them, and maybe sign a petition or two. (It’s quicker than writing a book.)
  • Animals — I watched a TV programme about conservationists in Costa Rica trying to save a baby sloth. They failed. It was terribly sad. It was also one on a very long list of critters I’ve been told about and/or begged for cash to support.
  • People — even in one of the wealthiest nations on the planet, there seems to be a superabundance of poor/abused/wronged/sick adults and children to care about. And don’t forget concerns about immigration, people-trafficking, slavery and the like; there’s plenty more which could be added to that list.

With all that on his mind, I suspect that even the most brilliant Cro-Magnon genius might just curl up in a ball and start whimpering.



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