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.
After some three and a half billion years of life’s evolution on this planet – and after almost two million years since people recognizable as human first walked its surface – a new human burst upon the scene, apparently unannounced.
It was us. Until then our ancestors had shared the planet with other human species. But soon there was only us, possessors of something that gave us unprecedented power over our environment and everything else alive. That something was – is – the Human Spark. What is the nature of human uniqueness? Where did the Human Spark ignite, and when? And perhaps most tantalizingly, why? In a three-part series to be broadcast on PBS in 2010, Alan Alda takes these questions personally, visiting with dozens of scientists on three continents, and participating directly in many experiments – including the detailed examination of his own brain. Alda is uniquely qualified for this role. As an actor and author, and as the long-time host of the PBS series Scientific American Frontiers, he has a passion for both the humanities and science. He is bringing his trademark humor and curiosity to face-to-face conversations with leading researchers seeking the Human Spark, from archeologists finding clues in the fossilized bones and tools of our ancestors; to primatologists studying our nearest living relatives to explore what we have in common and what sets us apart; to neuroscientists peering into his mind with the latest brain scanning technologies.
In the first program, Alda witnesses the dazzling (apparent) debut of the Human Spark in the spectacular 30,000 year-old artwork carved and painted on the walls of caves in France. He explores the world of our predecessors in Europe, the Neanderthals, who until we came along had done just fine. The central question of this program: What did we possess that the Neanderthals didn’t – and where did it come from? Did the Human Spark really burst into life in Europe, as archeologists have long believed? Or did it originate earlier, on another continent? Finding the answer involves research as disparate as exploring why long distance running gave us large brains; reconstructing the weaponry that made possible – and relatively safe – the hunting of large animals; scanning the teeth of Neanderthal children in a giant particle accelerator to see how quickly they grew up; reading Neanderthal genes; and discovering the beads that are the first evidence of our species’ fascination with social status – and that provided our ancestors with a powerful new means of social communication.
In the second program, Alan joins researchers studying our fellow apes – mainly chimpanzees, our closest living relatives – to discover both what we share with them, and what we have that has evolved since we went our separate ways. Alan observes and participates in experiments that reveal chimps’ immense skills but also a striking indifference to how things work. He sees how chimps use tools and have culture – but also how those tools and cultures are very different from ours. He witnesses chimps showing signs of empathy and cooperation, but also sees how limited these characteristically human qualities are. And, in an unexpected twist, he visits a “dog lab” in Germany where he participates in experiments that show how, in many areas of social understanding, dogs – separated from humans by tens of millions of years of evolution – are considerably more advanced than our nearest relatives.
In the third program, we literally peer into Alda’s head with a variety of high-tech imaging techniques to see if we can find his Human Spark. We discover the unique circuitry that provides us with what is our most prized ability, language, and with the insight provided by a family whose members have profound problems with speech, we untangle the complex story of the FOXP2 gene, which appears to have provided us with at least some of the brain mechanisms needed for language. We find out what areas of Alan’s brain allow him to use complex tools and understand the minds of others, both essential human attributes. Alda will participate in tests of babies as young as three months for their ability to make moral judgments. And we’ll discover in Alan’s brain a critical network that works best when he’s just doing nothing and which, ironically, may in fact be a critical repository for the Human Spark.
The Human Spark is a production of The Chedd-Angier-Lewis Production Company for Thirteen/WNET New York. Executive Producer for Thirteen: Jared Lipworth. Executive Producer and Series Producer for Chedd-Angier-Lewis: Graham Chedd. Major funding for The Human Spark is provided by the National Science Foundation, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and the John Templeton Foundation. Additional funding is provided by the Cheryl and Philip Milstein Family and The Winston Foundation.