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
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..
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
— Jean Baudrillard
interview in New Perspectives Quarterly
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
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.
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.
Adapts Brains to Adulthood
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
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."
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.
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,
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
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!"
from Intimations of Immortality
Adapts Brains for Childhood
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
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.
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.
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
Star Larvae Hypothesis:
a genus of organism.
The stellar life cycle includes a larval phase.
Biological life constitutes the larval phase of the stellar life cycle.
hypothesis presents a teleological model of nature, in which
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