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June 1st, 2008
Program Three: Brain Matters
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photo © Larry Engel, 2008

Premieres January 20, 2010 at 8pm (check local listings)

In the futuristic setting of the Laboratory of Neuro Imaging at the University of California, Los Angeles, Alan gets a highly detailed scan of his brain – which for a man in his early 70s, is in remarkably good shape. This image, projected on a huge curved screen behind him, is the starting point for a search within his brain – as well as the brains of others – for the essential components of the Human Spark; a search informed by what the previous two programs have revealed about the attributes that make humans unique.

One of those faculties is language. Through both functional brain scans and high-tech EEGs, we probe for the language centers within Alan’s brain, including those employed to recognize mistakes in grammar – and discover the way language allows us to manipulate symbols in our minds. He also untangles the complex story of a gene called FOXP2, visiting researchers in England and Germany as well as the US who are using FOXP2 as an exciting new window into how language may have evolved. Other functional scans of Alan’s brain reveal a fascinating link between two of humans’ most characteristic abilities – language and the use of tools.

The hottest topic in brain research these days is social cognition, the unparalleled ability of humans to forge social bonds. There may be other social creatures but none comes close in our dependence upon being embedded from birth in a rich and enriching skein of social relationships. Alan goes to Oxford, England to talk to one of the founders of the field who argues that we owe the very existence of our large brains to the need to keep track of the social whirl. And again we probe Alan’s brain for the centers that make this possible, especially those that allow us to understand (and manipulate) the minds of others. These regions are also related to brain centers that are most active when we are simply doing nothing – day-dreaming, or “mentalizing” – and this ability to build worlds and plans in our heads, especially involving the imagined thoughts and responses of others, perhaps come closest to being the elusive Human Spark.

  • Kirk W. Fraser

    Looks like you need a 4th episode to cover a more detailed look at abilities in thinking are shared and not shared by healthy humans, less capable humans, and chimps. An interview on Charlie Rose of a California Psych Professor was particularly revealing.

  • Barbara Martin

    This series is so engaging, I believe many more episodes can do wonders toward our understanding of evolution, and science in general. How scientists work toward an understanding of the natural world would be another great series – starting with those in the National Academy of Science perhaps. Alan Alda is great!

  • Richard Guy

    Looking forward to the PBS series. I am still hoping that intelligent life may be found on Earth.

  • Anonymous

    The genetic difference between a chicken’s brain and a chimp is 1 letter vs. human 18. What does human evolution look like how do the mutations correlate? More interestingly is why?

  • gloria stein

    I’m 81 years old and fortunately or unfortunately have yet to grasp the many twists and turns our brains have led us…I feel that this mystery will never be “solved” Kudos to our many brilliant scientists who struggle to understand our very existence.

  • David Spence

    I cannot wait to see this series. More such dissemination of scientific eqnuiry relateds to evolution, in general, is sorely needed. It will certainly cause a great deal of controversy, as it should. We humans are in a state of denial regarding our origins. We need to have open, honest discussions. But, to have such conversations, we desperately need more scientific information to be freely available, especially in our schools. This is not about brain-washing (pardon the pun), this is about education. Thank you for promoting this series.

  • Fred Corry

    2 uniformed Opinons:
    1)1% difference in physical DNA, when elaborated by experience and culture can result in a very big difference between species.
    2)2 groups of monkeys descend from the trees several million years ago. 1 group, no matter the envitonmental experience, will never evolve into humans. The other, given the apporopriate environmental experiences will. In other words, the groups were different but indistinguishable up to a point in evolution.

  • Billie McCoy

    Amazing series. We need open mindedness to learn anything. We will never fully understand or figure it all out, but we won’t learn anything if we don’t try.

  • Marvin Conner

    Delightful program! Susanne Langer wrote the script (Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling) some 30 years ago, however. Please look at her work if this series was of interest.

  • Barbara Letsom

    That was nice to see the University of Oregon where I graduated from the School of Psychology. I have worn that “thinking cap” that measures brainwaves as I was “tested” for various experiments. It’s very itchy!
    My question is: How does it happen that we go from the cooperative processes that are so pleasurable to the destructive competetiveness that characterizes our present society?
    This passing on of the spark of cooperation is a survival mechanism – the passing on of hatred & a belief in violence is self-destructive to humanity. Just saying…

  • Mavis Roe

    The only general trend I can see in this program is that our development depends very much on our social interaction from birth to old age.If we watch this as mature adults,especially if we have brought up children,we can see the truth in the study.The need for religion might be explained here and the possible evolution of Man is shown.Perhaps because I am older,I didn’t feel indoctrinated.Just stimulated by ideas that are fascinating.Very interesting show.Following nicely on the round table interview of scientists by Charlie Rose broadcast previously.Thank you.

  • Dan Eumurian

    In response to Sean Cooper, religion addresses the philosophy of science, and has as much right to do so as any other vendor in the free marketplace of ideas. Unlike proponents of “intelligent design,” theistic evolutionists such as Richard Colling, Darrell Falk, and Francis Collins embrace the findings of standard science, while holding that these findings are compatible with intelligent religion. William Cowper wrote over 200 years ago,”Part of thy Name divinely stands on all thy creatures writ. They speak the labor of thy hands, or impress of thy feet.”

  • My Take Away

    I really enjoyed this show… Moving 13 times the 1st 10 years of school as a child with foster homes etc makes one wonder about the childhood skills to survive… Then at 18 the military and discovering an entire population of service brats who also moved, adjusted, coped and who had similar skills… Discovering why we were not nuts, but prototypes after all these years is still a relief… Now If Someone Could Only Figure Out What On Earth Is Going On With People Like Limbaugh, Rove, The “Religious” Wrong and The Rest Of The Nut Jobs…

  • Sea Cooper

    In response to Dan Eumurian, please provide for us an example of “intelligent religion”.
    The only thing religion has done for science has been to retard it. If it were not for it’s death hold on us al the way up to Copernicus, we would have discovered much more than we have up to now. It has contributed to human development about as much as astrology has. Sorry I don’t respect you just like you wouldn’t respect me if I spoke of “intelligent astrology”. Good day to you sir.

  • Charles Highsmith

    I enjoyed seeing Rebecca Saxe again discussing cognition. I’ve seen her on the Charlie Rose brain series. I find comfort knowing that there are such gifted researchers like her and her colleagues who are trying to look for answers. And Alan Alda – I admire him so much. His work in science education with Scientific American Frontiers, several other projects, and now The Human Spark…well, it’s just very commendable.

  • Nicole Sumner

    When I see Alan Alda, I see his sense of humor- something very valuable when listening to scientists immersed in their fields. His laughter about listening to mice language made me laugh. He plays the “joker” role that Augusto Boal innovated in his Theater of the Opressed work. But I also see flashbacks of Alda in the Mash episode with the woman suffocating her crying baby to avoid getting a busload of people killed by enemy fire.
    Like Barbara Letsom, above, I wonder about our human cycles of violence, specifically in relation to our ability or inability to embrace our vulnerabilities.

  • CM, CT

    PBS, thanks so much for captions, I had greatly enjoyed watching this second episode and really look forward to next one. I would like to add how difference between deaf and hearing brains -”language gene”.
    CM, CT

  • Mary Elizabeth Quesada

    I loved the part where you talk about how globally we all believe in a being greater than ourselves – with regards to religion. How we all dress in different symbols but we mean the same God . So this should mean we are capable of all being good friends- what the heck are the wars all about ????

  • Dennis

    This is an enjoyable series to watch. I do not recall any mention by Mr. Alda of von Economo (spindle) neurons and their role in cognition? Yet it is known that these spindle neurons are only found in certain areas of the brain and only in mammals with higher cognitive abilities (man, apes, whales, elephants).

  • Dan Eumurian

    Replying again to Sean Cooper, I had listed three individuals who I believe represent intelligent religion. Best known among them is Francis Collins, M.D., Ph.D., former head of the human genome project, current director of the National Institutes of Health, author of _The Language of God_, and a member of the American Scientific Affiliation. I would challenge Mr. Cooper to read the writings of any of these scientists; _Mere Christianity_, by C. S. Lewis, or the journal “Books and Culture.” Then I would invite him to join the ranks of former skeptics such as Lewis, Joad, and Lee Strobel who dared to investigate the faith they had once scorned. By the way, the best refutation of astrology with which I’m familiar is _What Your Horoscope Doesn’t Tell You_, by Charles Strohmer.

  • Terry Bourret

    I am an RN and an artist/teacher. I was thrilled to see the locations in the brain that responded to different concepts. I teach right hemisphere drawing and painting to people 6-96….It is interesting to watch as different people learn to see shapes and patterns the way an artist sees them. It is very easy for some and not so easy for others. Music and art education in the early years seems to be a common denominator for those who find it easier. Thank you Alan for a great show.

  • Angie Carrera

    My deepest thanks for this excellent program! As an instructor of foreign-language interpretation, I include a presentation on the brain and its processing during interpretation. So the portion of the program on the human sparks during the processing of language, as in preparation for articulation of sounds and the use of grammar, was of particular interest to me. I will encourage my students to watch this program. Excellent!

  • Sam

    Thank you so much for making this available to people in the UK,

    I cannot say the same for the NOVA website who have blocked their programs to people in the UK

    Thanks again :-)

  • Walton Balas

    I have enjoyed your viewpoint. My reading has shown your views to be true, however I have also heard the opposite from different articles like this one. Do you have any suggestions for locating more savvy info on natural health or related topics? I would definitely appreciate it!

  • sensor kit

    Great information. I attach the most interesting points from this blog. The need for religion might be explained here and the possible evolution of Man is shown.Perhaps because I am older,I didn’t feel indoctrinated. The only thing religion has done for science has been to retard it. If it were not for it’s death hold on us al the way up to Copernicus, we would have discovered much more than we have up to now. It has contributed to human development about as much as astrology has. I appreciate your work. Thanks for sharing..\
    sensor kit

  • CosmicChuck

    Very interesting to see fMRI images of what I used to study 20+ years ago at the UofA in Tucson. Philosophy of Mind, Philosophy of Language, Linguistics, Cognitive Science, Computer Science and AI amongst other topics with a great degree of overlap. The last segment on Intentionality with the MRIs for 2nd order Intentionality of another person and of oneself elsewhen essentially using the same areas of the brain is not that surprising, since the computational tasks involved in the two different Intentional processes are largely the same. The only critical difference is who the Intentional focus of the thought process is. Application of the Principle of Parsimony would lead one to expect that result. As to which usage of that area of the brain came first, I would suspect that neither one had much of a head start over the other. Thinking about what one’s own mind might do, or thinking about what another person’s mind is doing have the same computational complexity. Being aware of other’s minds should not be possible without being aware of one’s own mind first. Both processes increase one’s chances of staying alive and have children. So the fact that 2nd-order Intentionality directed towards oneself or someone else are both useful and use the same hardware reinforce the capability of 2nd-order Intentionality in general. If the two processes used different areas of the brain that would be wasting brain-space that might otherwise be put to better use, which would be more likely to lead to an evolutionary dead end. Not being able to think about what others might be thinking about would make it impossible to socialize. Not being able to think about oneself elsewhen would preclude being able to plan what to do next. Both processes are required for a group of people to become civilized.

    Thinking about oneself elsewhen should include imagining oneself under counterfactual situations – how one may have done something in the past differently than was actually done with a partially different chain of events that would hopefully lead to a different end result. Imagining oneself having done something counterfactual to what one actually did is essential to being able to learn from one’s mistakes at the very least.

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