Forget Sherlock Holmes

The received knowledge is that human cognitive abilities are due to humans having a larger frontal cortex than other animals. This ‘fact’ is now in doubt. Even if Sherlock Holmes had a noble forehead, we can’t assume the the frontal lobes are the key to intelligence. This idea may even be hindering clearer understanding of the brain.



ScienceDaily reports (here) on research by Barton Venditti. “Human frontal lobes are not relatively large”, inPNAS, May 2013.



Here is the abstract:


One of the most pervasive assumptions about human brain evolution is that it involved relative enlargement of the frontal lobes. We show that this assumption is without foundation. Analysis of five independent data sets using correctly scaled measures and phylogenetic methods reveals that the size of human frontal lobes, and of specific frontal regions, is as expected relative to the size of other brain structures. Recent claims for relative enlargement of human frontal white matter volume, and for relative enlargement shared by all great apes, seem to be mistaken. Furthermore, using a recently developed method for detecting shifts in evolutionary rates, we find that the rate of change in relative frontal cortex volume along the phylogenetic branch leading to humans was unremarkable and that other branches showed significantly faster rates of change. Although absolute and proportional frontal region size increased rapidly in humans, this change was tightly correlated with corresponding size increases in other areas and whole brain size, and with decreases in frontal neuron densities. The search for the neural basis of human cognitive uniqueness should therefore focus less on the frontal lobes in isolation and more on distributed neural networks.”



4 thoughts on “Forget Sherlock Holmes

  1. That is very interesting…

    On another note, I haven’t visited your blog for a while, and I like the template change… this one is very nice and neat, distraction free. However, would you consider to enable the social media sharing buttons? (I’m pretty sure they are available in this template?). For example, I would like to share this post on Twitter and Google+. To do that, because there is no “Tweet This” button or similar, I have to log in to Twitter, copy the web address and hope that it isn’t too long for Twitter, and then post it from Twitter, as opposed to just clicking a button on the post. Just a suggestion:-) As you can hear I am a very lazy person.

    • I am trying but having a hard time. I was ‘dumped’ from one system into another. It should have been a good change but I am having trouble. It happened when I was moving house and then travelling and I have not been able to do the work required to learn how to make the changes I need to make. Thanks for the suggestion and I will try to do something about it soon.

  2. I just stole the science daily article here for face book. This is interesting to me. What it looks to me is that what is happening here is a particular point of view is changing and now we see an article that puts the new(er) ideas together for more public consumption. I am realizing that the way ideas change is pretty interesting. I wonder if there are any constants in this at least in the form it takes. In the field of English there is what is called usage. That is when a new way of saying something hasn’t yet been formally accepted completely. In the French language there is the Academy which decides I think or is that still operating? Now in something like brain studies the chances for disagreement or variation of what is accepted at any one time is gigantic I imagine although a lot of people seem to be following this research right now. Having some health concerns that are only just beginning to be accepted has made me especially aware of the fluctuations of acceptance and recognition of various theories or descriptions of events.

  3. In my opinion, brain science is in its infancy and nothing that seems firm now is guaranteed to remain so. Although what is shown firmly to be wrong, probably is. A single paper is just that – we need a pile of them using different methods etc to be confident that a finding is solid. We also have to think about which papers get published. All research does not make it to publication or publication in a journal that is read. Then we have to keep in the back of our heads that any particular ‘fact’ can be the product of fraud or just sloppiness. Consensus is hard-won and it is consensus across many scientific groups that is the thing that is called ‘scientific truth’ although it is not truth at all in the philosophical sense – just a good enough approximation for the present, not written in stone. Problems have recently come from the large amounts of money that is being thrown at neuroscience. Some scientists are fighting for the lion’s share and hype their theories and results almost to the point of being unethical in their claims (I don’t know of any that have stepped over the line).
    I think an authority body for accepted scientific truth would be a backward and dangerous way to go; we would end up with a Middle Ages type of scholarship. The messy free-for-all is much more likely to produce good science despite the mess.
    I understand your frustration with research in areas like CF/ME. For me there is also obesity, gluten intolerance. There are so many theories and so little actual good research and so hard to find the research that does exist.

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