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How Does The Brain Tackle Problems That Evolution Didn't Teach It?

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The human brain is a complicated computer, capable of solving problems that its evolution didn't teach it to solve. But how exactly does it do this?

Researchers at Dartmouth College set out to answer that question and discovered that the brain repurposes lessons from its evolution and uses it to tackle new problems.

For example, our everyday lives include us using smartphones, social media, the Internet and a wide variety of other technologies. But our ancestors didn't have access to such technology. One might think because of that, the brain would require a huge learning curve to figure out how to use these devices and that it could, even after learning, struggle with them.

However, those of us who have used technology knows that this isn't the case. In fact, most of us pick up new technology and learn to use it quickly, often without ever reading the user manual that accompanies it.

One of the reasons the brain does this so easily is due to "evolutionary purposing." This is basically how the brain evolved to "use what's in the room" to solve problems. Over time, natural selection determines which problem-solving abilities the brain has, allowing us to tap into that and repurpose it with new behavior. For example, we've long understood the concept of space and distances, but now, we apply this concept to people in our social networks.

Another factor at work in our brains involves our "cultural repurposing," which basically refers to how we develop abilities like reading, playing music and developing beliefs. Scientists believe that we now have these abilities because our brain repurposed other abilities to apply to new learning.

Finally, scientists believe "instrumental repurposing" plays a part in how the brain learns new things. This means that we intentionally push the boundaries of our brains' evolution and use that to influence behavior. For example, we feel concern for an entire group of people just through one solitary photo, such as a child starving in Africa. However, our evolutionary history shows us that we once lived as tribes of hunters and gatherers in tight groups. Now, though, our sense of interconnectedness spans globally and the brain somehow sees that, although evolution would say otherwise.

In fact, charity groups have used this concept for bringing attention to issues such as global warming.

"Understanding what is in our cognitive toolbox is a first step to understanding how we can most effectively use these tools to address modern problems that our brains did not evolve to solve," says study co-author Thalia Wheatley, PhD.

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