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Introduction
& Prolog
Part 1.
Metabolic Metaphysics
Part 2.
Star Larvae
Part 3.
Space Brains
Addenda
Epilog

The Star Larvae Hypothesis
Nature's Plan for Humankind
Part 3. Space Brains

Neuroplasticity and Neurological Neoteny

Neurological enrichment in weightlessness juvenilizes brains, continuing into outer space the neotenous trend established already in human evolution.


 

Perhaps despite expectations, brains enriched by weightlessness, or any other enriching environment, will not necessarily exhibit high intelligence—at least not the sort of intelligence measured by college-entrance exams.

This is an important caveat, because brain enrichment has acquired a political dimension. Developmental neurology has spawned its own cultural politics. The debate around it is relevant to the star larvae hypothesis, because it helps clarify the psychological implications of the generalized brain enrichment that the hypothesis ascribes to native extraterrestrials..

"In the future, power will belong to those peoples with no origins and no authenticity. It will belong to those who, like America from the beginning, can achieve "deterritorialization" and weightlessness and figure out how to exploit the situation to the full extent."

— Jean Baudrillard
interview in New Perspectives Quarterly

Educational consultant John Bruer lays out the political dimension of brain enrichment/impoverishment research in The Myth of the First Three Years. Bruer debunks the popular and politically charged fiction of an irreversible brain "tuning" that occurs during the first three years of life. The brain retains into later life enough plasticity to sprout new synapses and weed out old ones, as Bruer documents, but the issue is politically charged because appeals to the first three years, over the past several decades, have garnered increased spending on infant- and toddler-focused education. Advocates use the data on brain-plasticity to argue that the first three years of life constitute a limited window of opportunity for brain enrichment.

Bruer acknowledges that brain plasticity is susceptible to enriching and impoverishing effects, but, he cautions, "When it comes to humans, we must be careful not to read 'Upper East Side/Palo Alto' for 'complex/enriched' and 'South Bronx/East Los Angeles' for 'isolated/deprived.'" Although he prefers "complex" and "isolated" to "enriched" and "impoverished" or "deprived," these various labels to a significant degree just miss the point. Why should environments interest us more than the behaviors that they elicit? Research results show developing brains to be active agents that participate in, and even drive, their own development.

Neural Pruning Adapts Brains to Adulthood

Inventive minds might cook up politically correct alternatives to "enriched" and "impoverished," or they could just lean on empiricism and label the environments according to the observable behaviors that they elicit. In that case, they would be labeled "high activity" and "low activity" environments, labels that meet Bruer's criterion of not pinpointing social class.

I have retained "enriched" and "impoverished" because they have become the standard jargon of developmental neurology. "Enriched" means simply a condition of more activity and more synapses, and "impoverished" means a condition of less of both. The relative desirability of points on the spectrum between the extremes of these conditions depends on what an organism needs to do to get along. That conclusion at least jibes with standard evolutionary theory. How enriched does a brain have to be to comport a body competently in weightlessness and how enriched to run a business office?

Synaptic connections that accumulate during a lifetime in weightlessness might swamp the symbol-manipulating skills emphasized during schooling. Extreme enrichment likely would be maladaptive in a work-for-wages terrestrial milieu. "Young children often propose brilliant, conceptually correct ideas, yet they cannot take them any further," observes a New York Times review of brain research (6/24/86). "Children seem to daydream. They cannot concentrate for long. All this . . . may be because too many neural connections interfere with sustained logical thought."

Bruer concurs, emphasizing that proponents of environmental engineering for the purpose of maximizing synaptic density in children’s brains, even if they were successful, might do the kids more harm than good. The pruning of excess neurons is a normal process that apparently helps organisms conform to the demands of their environments. If underused connections were retained, they might interfere with normal functioning, such as by introducing extraneous signals—noise—into a brain’s operations. Neural pruning, by eliminating excess connections, would seem to improve the fidelity of the brain’s communications network, and hence its efficiency and reliability in performing the particular tasks for which it needs to be optimized.

Nonetheless, the synaptic density enjoyed by children before neural pruning is complete benefits the kids in significant ways. Researcher Alison Gopnik, in a Scientific American article (July 2010), How Babies Think, points out that in humans the prefrontal cortex, a brain area essential for focusing, planning and efficient action, does not get wired completely until as late as the mid-20s. She comments,

"The lack of prefrontal control in young children naturally seems like a huge handicap, but it may actually be tremendously helpful for learning. The prefrontal area inhibits irrelevant thoughts or actions. But being uninhibited may help babies and young children to explore freely. There is a trade-off between the ability to explore creatively and learn flexibly, like a child, and the ability to plan and act effectively, like an adult. The very qualities needed to act efficiently—such as swift automatic processing and a highly pruned brain network—may be intrinsically antithetical to the qualities that are useful for learning, such as flexibility."

"Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life's Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar.
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!"

— Wordsworth
from Intimations of Immortality

Neural Enrichment Adapts Brains for Childhood

The enriched brains of native extraterrestrials will be packed with what on Earth would be excess connections. They might therefore fail the test of adaptation to adulthood. They are more likely to exhibit mental propensities conspicuously juvenile.

By preserving synaptic connections that whither from neglect when brains develop on Earth, and by assimilating a maturing population of new cells, space brains will exhibit neoteny. They will become juvenilized—retaining into adulthood the high synaptic density and large neuronal populations that characterize neonates and young children. Neoteny is defined by evolutionary biologists as a retardation of development. It produces adults with juvenile features. Neoteny turns out to be a well-trod evolutionary path, a mode of adaptation often resorted to by species that live in rapidly fluctuating environments.

Moreover, human beings are susceptible to neotenous evolution. Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould was an outspoken champion of this interpretation of the fossil record. Gould argued in several books that adult humans are infantile on a number of measures, from dental patterns to head-torso-limb (allometric) proportions. From the fossil evidence he concluded that, "[A] general, temporal retardation of development has clearly characterized human evolution. This retardation established a matrix within which all trends in the evolution of human morphology must be assessed" (in Ontogeny and Phylogeny). As a result of this trend, human adults resemble the infants of their primate ancestors more than they resemble the adults.

Gould resisted prophesying the future of human evolution, but it would seem that the neotenous trend will continue and accelerate in space—as bones soften, muscles thin out, and brains bulk up. For load-bearing tissue—bone and muscle—gravity is an enriching environment and weightlessness an impoverishing one. For mind-bearing tissue the opposite would seem to be the case, in which case we can expect exraterrestrial brains to be juvenilized, because they will be hyupertrophied. And that conclusion arrives with even more implications for post-human evolution..

NEXT > Sleep, Lifestyle of the Rich and Weightless

 

The Star Larvae Hypothesis:

Stars constitute a genus of organism. The stellar life cycle includes a larval phase. Biological life constitutes the larval phase of the stellar life cycle.

Elaboration: The hypothesis presents a teleological model of nature, in which

 

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