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Collaboration Makes Our Brains Bigger

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Brain exposed, 16th centuryI was recently enthralled by a TED presentation by Dan Gilbert, Harvard psychologist and author of Stumbling on Happiness.

Current research by neuroscientists indicates that in the last two million years, the human brain has nearly tripled in mass, going from the 1¼-pound brain used by our Homo Habilis ancestors of 2,000,000 years ago, to the modern three-pounder that we Homo Sapiens carry between our ears. This entire transformation took place during the last 200,000 years, a blink in the evolutionary eye. Why?

When brains triple in size, they don’t just get bigger so they can store more memories, they actually gain new structures. The main reason our brains got so big is that they added a whole new part in the frontal lobe called the prefrontal cortex.

What amazing function did the brain need to perform to justify a complete redesign in a mere 200,000 years? What was so important to our survival as a species that we underwent a total overhaul that doubled the size of our brain?

The answer is fascinating: imagination. The brain became a powerful “experience simulator.” It allowed us to imagine what something would be like before we tried it. In my mind — a.k.a. my imagination — this is the most important evolutionary change ever, more than opposable thumbs and even language. Without imagination we would not have much use for those thumbs, and without imagination, well, language… duh.

The science goes further. The idea is that the more we used our imagination the more the prefrontal lobe grew, and the more the prefrontal lobe grew the more we used our imagination, and round and round, until we come to reading this right now.

I spend a lot of time thinking about things like co-creation, value creation, open innovation, collaborative innovation, collective innovation, and continuous innovation. Lump it all under the heading of collaboration. And as I was listening to Dan Gilbert and his TED presentation, I realized that collaboration is one of the main reasons we developed imagination and use it to do more collaboration. We moved from imagining, “How big is the universe?” to imagining, “How do we work together to build a spaceship to get to the moon?”

So, collaboration seems to be one of the main reasons we developed imagination. In other words, we became Homo Sapiens because we had a better brain that could imagine how to collaborate, and because we could imagine how to collaborate we became better Homo Sapiens. And the more we learn to collaborate — and that includes the list of things like co-creation, value creation, open innovation, collaborative innovation, collective innovation, and continuous innovation — the more our brains will grow.

That brings me back to my original premise: Collaboration makes our brains bigger. What do you think?

Source: “The Surprising science of happiness,” TED presentation by Dan Gilbert, Feb. 2004