Assessing strangers may have helped boost cerebral cortex size [Wikimedia Commons]

Humans could owe massive brain size to 'sizing-up' of ancestors

Research involving hundreds of thousands of game-based computer simulations suggests we may owe our bulging brain sizes to the simple act of 'sizing up' fellow humans by our distant ancestors, a discovery that could boost development of autonomous systems like self-driving cars.

Computer scientists at Cardiff University believe the human brain and its size may be linked to the judgement of our ancestors concerning whether or not to cooperate with other humans.

The study that precipitated the discovery involved the use of computer modelling to run hundreds of thousands of simulations, based around a 'donating' game, to pinpoint the complexities of decision making. In each round of the game, two simulated players were selected, the first of which making a decision on whether or not to 'donate' to the other player, based on their perceived reputation. When choosing to donate, they incurred a 'cost', whereas the recipient was given a 'benefit'. In light of player actions, reputations were amended and another round of the game started.

According to lead author Professor Rodger Whitaker, from the university's School of Computer Science and Informatics, this points towards the conclusion that we prefer "strategies to help those who are at least as successful" as ourselves. This could have resulted in us having the largest cerebral cortex of any other mammal relative to our size, due to the task of such intense thinking and reasoning (which the cerebral cortex handles) being stimulating enough to allowing for the expansion of the human brain over many generations of reproduction.

Consequently, we have ended up with a "disproportionately large brain" according to Professor Robin Dunbar, whose 'social brain hypothesis' is supported by the study, published in Scientific Reports.

“According to the social brain hypothesis, the disproportionately large brain size in humans exists as a consequence of humans evolving in large and complex social groups," he said. "Our new research reinforces this hypothesis and offers an insight into the way cooperation and reward may have been instrumental in driving brain evolution, suggesting that the challenge of assessing others could have contributed to the large brain size in humans.”

The results of the research could have applications within the engineering industry, allowing for current autonomous technology like driverless cars and distributed wireless networks to learn how to self-manage and cooperate, creating a new level of consciousness.

“The models we use can be executed as short algorithms called heuristics, allowing devices to make quick decisions about their cooperative behaviour,” Professor Whitaker noted.

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