Due to a recent study that was made in order to further differentiate the human brain to that of our ancestors, the chimpanzees, scientist have come to the conclusion that human brain flexibility was caused by our environment.
This study was made by a research group comprised of several scientists from of well-known universities, such as the George Washington University and the Georgia State University. The goal of this research was to make further inquiries concerning the difference in brain structure when comparing human and chimpanzee brains.
MRI scans were made on 200 chimps and the same number of humans over an extended period and their findings were surprising. Compared to our primate ancestors, our brains are less influenced by our genes, thus creating a sort of blank canvas, ready to take information from our environment in order to thrive.
Even though both human and chimpanzee brains are similar from the point of view of brain size, this size being completely influenced by genetics, its plasticity is much more predominant in humans. Brain Plasticity (coming from the Greek word ‘plastos’ which means ‘molded’) refers to the capability of the brain to modify and specialize itself in accordance to its environment and changes within the body.
The reason for this might be the fact that the first humans were one of the nomadic species, always moving along the animal migratory paths in order to have a source of food, no matter our environment. By doing this, the human brain had to adapt in order to prepare for the possibility of residing in a new environment with every generation that came.
The anatomy of the chimpanzee brain was much more influenced by their genes, making their brain structure and organization much more static after birth when compared to ours. Most of the human brain growth and maturation comes after birth, meaning that experiences and skills are in direct relation to the environment in which humans found themselves at that point in time.
But by evolving in such a way, the human brain was much more susceptible to genetic diseases that affect it after birth, such as neural degeneration and disorders concerning the development of the brain. Another problem which humans faced was that by being born with less developed brains at birth, we were constantly relying on help from the outside world while still in our infancy. This was solved by the advanced social nature that humans had, the group being charged with protecting and ensuring the survival of the newborns until they were capable enough to become a bigger part of the group.
The fact that human brain flexibility was caused by our environment makes scientists wonder even more about how, through evolution, humans came to develop higher brain plasticity, further differentiating us from our relative ancestors, the chimpanzees.