Friday, May 04, 2012

The brain as a bundle of engineering compromises

Real ‘Beautiful Mind’: College Dropout Became Mathematical Genius After Mugging (PHOTOS) - ABC News:

'via Blog this'

The recent story of a college dropout who began perceiving the world in terms of geometric proofs and turning out scores of gorgeous, math-based drawings after a head injury reminds me of Dr. Oliver Sach's account of a painter who lost the ability to see or even think in color after a car crash, but went on to produce very beautiful works in black, white, and gray after he had learned to cope with his new perception. It's also similar to Sach's story of stroke patients whose spoken language faculties were impaired by damage to the brain, but who gained an uncanny ability to discern if other people were lying by reading their facial expressions and body language.

There are several such stories in medical literature of unusual abilities emerging after instances of brain trauma, but why?

It's a bit of a mystery, and it gets even deeper when considering the many classic--if disparagingly named--cases of idiot-savant combinations. The pairings of developmental deficiencies present from birth with superhuman artistic or mathematical talents.

So why, why, why is there so often such a steep price for such super-human talents? After all, wouldn't it be a considerable advantage to go through life with these kinds of gifts?

Stepping back and looking at this question from a wider perspective sheds some light on the matter. Yes, it might be nice to have these abilities in a modern society with academic, business, and scientific institutions where these talents are useful, but they probably wouldn't have done much for any of our ancestors living in small bands of hunter-gathers. In fact, given how often such abilities are tied to difficulties in communicating or social reasoning, they could well be detrimental to survival and reproduction. After all, being an effective member of a foraging and hunting band was normally what counted first and foremost for being able to pass ones genes on to the next generation.

The neurological price for carrying out all the social interactions, bonding, and teamwork that makes a band stay together through thick and thin may have been a brain more focused on empathy and intuiting the emotional states of other human beings rather than strong visual, analytical, or spatial reasoning talents. The level of integration between the emotion-mediating limbic structures of the brain and its reasoning forebrain might blunt or retard the pathways involved in deeper, pre-conscious levels of analysis. The very kind that create savant-level feats of memory, art, and math.

Anyways, this this is a lot of speculation on my part, and should be taken with several grains of contextual salt.

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