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.