The question of how mammals evolved their exceptionally large brains has intrigued researchers for years, and although many ideas have been put forward, none has provided a clear answer. Now a team of palaeontologists suggests that the mammalian brain evolved in three distinct stages, the first of which was driven by an improvement in the sense of smell. Their evidence, published in tomorrow’s issue of Science, comes from two fossilized skulls, each measuring little more than 1cm in length.
Mammals emerged during, or just before, the early Jurassic period, some 200 million years ago. We know that the earliest mammals were small, nocturnal animals that fed on insects, but there is very little in the way of details about how their brains might have looked, because fossils are scant, consisting mostly of isolated jaws and teeth. A few skulls have been found but until now studying the brain involved damaging the fossils which, given their rarity, was out of the question.
Your brain has a remarkable ability to extract and process biological cues from the deluge of visual information. It is highly sensitive to the movements of living things, especially those of other people – so much so that it conjures the illusion of movement from a picture of a moving body. Although static, such pictures trigger dynamic representations of the body, ‘motor images’ containing information about movement kinematics and timing. Researchers at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience in London now show that biological motion is processed unconsciously, and that the speed of apparent motion alters the perception of time.
Play around with this point light display and you’ll see that your brain has specialized mechanisms dedicated to recognizing and visually processing the human body and its movements. The demo shows that the brain is adept at inferring structure from motion, so thatwe readily perceive biological motion even when a minimum amount of information about the body is available. It also shows that the motions of the body contain information about sex, weight, emotional state and even some personality traits, and that we can extract this information effortlessly.