Columbia University neuroscientist Carl Hart tells Nautilus drugs rewire our brains—his brain in particular; he’s a “recreational” heroin user—in a perfectly natural way. Opioids bind to brain receptors like any natural chemical, such as those in sugar or coffee, and produce a response—in this case, a blanket of euphoria. They’re “facilitating what’s already in the body naturally, a system that helps in our survival,” Hart says.
Our rewiring brains are indeed a signature of our thriving species. We are master adapters because our brain networks function in a constant state of makeover. This week we spotlight new science behind how our brains have evolved and continue to evolve. Alongside Hart, professor of philosophy Thomas Nail clues us in to a counterintuitive approach to mollifying anxiety. By amplifying fluctuations or “noise” in our brains, Nail writes, our busy neurons “generate novel solutions to complex problems.”
Meanwhile, evolutionary biologist Joseph Henrich highlights one of the most transformative configurations of our brain in history—reading. He traces the breakthrough in literacy to the Protestant mission to study the Bible. Our “minds, brains, and indeed our biology,” Henrich writes, “are, in myriad ways, substantially shaped by the social norms, values, institutions, beliefs, and languages bequeathed to us from prior generations.” It’s a fascinating triptych of stories, about our shape-shifting brains.
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