updated 8/8/2011 5:19:33 PM ET 2011-08-08T21:19:33

Science fiction tells of humans who resemble superheroes enhanced by DNA tailoring or cyborg technologies, but its focus on future evolution may overlook the hidden powers of the primordial brain. After all, the same lump of gray matter has already enabled humans to expand from small groups of prehistoric hunter-gatherers to world-dominating civilizations. Now modern humans could still harness the brain to do even greater things, says an evolutionary neurobiologist.

Mark Changizi explores how a human brain that evolved without spoken language, writing or music has still managed to wrap itself around all three. His books, including the newly released "Harnessed: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed Ape to Man" (BenBella Books, 2011), suggest that such technologies succeeded in harnessing the brain's instincts that had evolved to deal with the sights and sounds of the natural world.

"We humans evolve in new ways now, but with fixed instincts, to the extent that culture evolves — creating nature-harnessing technology for our ancient brains," Changizi said.

As director of human cognition at 2AI Labs, Changizi looks to apply insights about the brain toward sensory enhancement, cognitive optimization and artificial intelligence. But much of his earlier career focused on trying to understand nature-harnessing technologies.

Tools shaped for the brain

Take writing as an example. It arose just several thousand years ago, and most people in any given society didn't learn how to read and write until a few hundred years ago. That doesn't give natural evolution enough time to have shaped the brain around such a recent technology.

Yet the brain has little trouble readily learning a wide variety of languages ranging from Mandarin Chinese to Latin. That's because the characters in written languages evolved through cultural selection to possess the small shapes or contours that form the visual building blocks of opaque 3-D objects found in the natural world, Changizi said. He details his evidence for such a connection in an earlier book called "The Vision Revolution" (BenBella Books 2009).

"Our instincts can be harnessed to do powerful new stuff — 'powerful' in the way only natural selection can be — but only so long as the new stuff is packaged into the shapes our ancient instincts are innately attuned to process," Changizi told InnovationNewsDaily.

Changizi also points to how spoken language and music have links to the brain's auditory preferences in his more recent book. In "Harnessed," he analyzes how the building blocks of spoken language reflect the sounds of solid-object physical events such as hits, slides and rings. Similarly, he carefully builds an impressive case for how the patterns in music mimic the patterns of human movement in time and space.

Unpacking the brain

Understanding all the brain's potential doesn't require deep understanding of exactly how the brain works — something scientists still can't explain well. Instead, Changizi finds much of his impressive stack of evidence from looking at the natural world that shaped the human brain. The patterns of natural sound and vision form what he calls the "world grammars," and may give humans a glimpse into the workings of a brain that has evolved in response to such grammars.

If scientists can observe and catalog "world grammars," they could begin to use such grammars to consciously shape the human world in ways that reflect the regularities and patterns already familiar to the brain. That in turn might lead to design revolutions in everything from architectural design to fashion.

But predicting what new functions humans want remains a tough challenge, Changizi said. He pointed out how even "game-changers" such as writing did not immediately seem world-shaking, even though the modern world's repository of knowledge and technological accomplishments could not exist without it.

"Writing was around for many centuries and practically no one cared except a few clerics and bookkeepers," Changizi said.

Mysteries upon the deep

Changizi's respect for the brain's natural tendencies goes hand in hand with wariness toward the enhanced humans who inhabit the dreams of science fiction writers and futurists. He suggested that people tend to "radically overestimate" how much scientists can figure out about the brain, even as they "underestimate the brilliance of the natural engineering already in place within our bodies and brains."

" Human-level AI, artificial cats, blue brains, singularities — they're wildly optimistic about the pace at which we're cracking the brain's secrets, and they're deeply naive about how much design is etched inside," Changizi said.

In that spirit, Changizi plans write his first fictional story as a way of detailing his vision for the future. That means no genetically enhanced perfection, hive minds, cyborg super-beings or next-generation artificial intelligence.

"It is a more humanistic vision of the future, one consistent with my view of how we got to where we are today from our ancient Homo sapiens ancestors," Changizi said. "And yet, it is a future very different from our own, with powers as remarkable to us as writing is to a caveman."

You can follow InnovationNewsDaily senior writer Jeremy Hsu on Twitter @ScienceHsu. Follow InnovationNewsDaily on Twitter @News_Innovation, or on Facebook.

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