During the homecoming weekend, Colby’s biology professor Josh Martin gave a fascinating talk on the origins of brains. Starting with his own research object, praying mantises, Prof. Martin explored the neural systems of a diverse group of insects and drew connections and comparisons between insects’ brains and humans’ brains.
I wouldn’t believe there existed many similarities between my brain and a mantis’s brain, except for the fact that they are both brains, until Prof. Martin gave the example of arm manipulations. He stated that when a mantis went for prays, it would move its pliers and catch the food the same way as we used our arms to grab things, and both our actions went through the same part of the brain. I first regarded this similarity as a coincidence, since the brain, by instinct, has an extremely complicated structure and consists of numerous neutrons. But Prof. Martin then introduced ten more different insect species and explained how each of the brains was similar with or different from humans’ brains. I, therefore, wonder what it would be like if we have a mantis’s brain and how our lives would be different. Prof. Martin also mentioned that the brain system didn’t evolve in a linear process. The abundant biodiversities we have in our ecosystem now result from the copious possibilities in each stage of evolution. Ultimately, many brain structures, regardless of complex or simple, may surprisingly share the same origins, but it was those divergent directions of evolution that shaped each brain as it is today.
If we consider the origins of brains from a STS perspective, I can think of two different ways in which brains and technologies interact with each other. On the one hand, many medical or biological practices can modify functions and treat diseases in our brains. On the other hand, brain sciences also inspire new directions for modern technologies. This second point is particularly interesting to me because of another class that I am taking this semester: System Biology. In this course, we study the biological process such as signal transmission through neural systems and protein syntheses controlled by different activators and repressors. We then simulate these processes using computer languages and apply them to solve real-life issues. More advanced algorithms are written by those more experienced computer scientists and subjects like artificial intelligence and machine learning are at the forefront of the field. In my opinions, by mimicking the work of a brain system, regardless of humans’ or insects’, these brain-inspired technologies, such as nanomaterial memristors and brain-like GPS, also open up a brand new dimension in which brain systems can ‘evolve.’ In the near future, it might even be possible that those brain-inspired technologies develop to have their own consciousness and thinking, just as described in many science fictions. Thus, I consider such innovations as another origin of the brain in addition to the one Prof. Martin talked about, a special origin existing only in the modern technological world.