Brain evolution

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In his book “Commung with the Gods” Charles Laughlin tells about brain evolution, with a special emphasis on dreaming. Being an anthropologist trained in neuroscience he shares some interesting facts about how we evolved into our current brain-mind.

Charles Laughlin Communing with the Gods

The evolution of the animal kingdom began with the origin of single cell creatures who very likely also experienced their environment in some rudimentary way” Charles Laughlin writes in Communing with the Gods. “Movement is adaptation to the environment. It implies that the moving animal has a depiction of the environment and its changes”. 

Reading this, I remembered a Ted Talk I saw years ago from Daniel Wolpert who made a strong argument for movement being the only reason for the existence of a brain. And it is true, movement does improve our chances of survival and procreation. But Charles Laughlin tells us more about brain evolution, its structures and how they affect dreaming.

Early on in evolution there was a thing called down time. Time for an animal to channel its energy in dealing with inside information. The Caenorhabditis elegans, a roundworm, is one of vertebrates who has downtime.

As the evolution of multi cell animals arose, it was necessary to develop control and coordinate somatic activities. Specialized cells that grouped together in the form of a neural tube with multiple sensory organs. So neurons evolved and began to specialize. Neurons can be divided into:

  1. Efferent systems: they carry information from the brain to the organs.
  2. Afferent systems: they carry information from the organs to the brain
  3. Interneurons: connect to each other to form local systems.
    The higher on the evolutionary scale, the higher the proportion of interneurons becomes. Interneurons are involved in making schema’s, inner movies; because they intervene between sensory input and behavioral output. These inner movies are what we use in dreaming, daydreaming, creativity and problem solving. This ability makes us able to predict the future with a certain degree of accuracy.
    Interneurons are sufficient to produce alternative states of awareness.

Sleeping and dreaming have an advantage, dreaming animals have a better chance of survival. Dreaming is a form of reality testing. The internal models are set into practice in dreams, and information about reality is assimilated.

This kind of testing and future planning involves the frontal lobe.  At a later stage in evolution the ability to conceptualize became part of the symbolic process. Conceptualization has to do with language. We have to not only comprehend our own ideas, we also need to talk about them with others. We do that most easily by using concepts. When we talk about the Big Bang, almost everybody knows we talk about the origin of the universe.

Language is an essential part of this process. Language processing requires many areas of the cortex. This ability probably occurred during the time of Homo habilis, 2.5 million years ago.

According to Charles Laughlin, early humans were dream sharers. Dream sharing would have given humans food for thought. The effort of searching for meaning is universal among animals with brains like the Homo sapiens.  It enabled them to address existential questions that arise as a consequence of dream sharing. Dreaming became part of mental reality.

Communing with the Gods is a very interesting, very anthropological book. The definitions of concepts are numerous, and the theory the author proposes to incorporate biological, evolutionary and neurologic information is very interesting.

If you are interested in the brain, in dreaming, in evolution, you must definitly get a copy of this book.