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Special Event

Millennium 2000: Intelligence

Aired January 2, 2000 - 10:30 a.m. ET


DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: Recording every second of every day, every event in your life, every bit of wisdom that can be learned, the human brain can do it all and still have room to spare.


WILLIAM GREENOUGH, UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS: The remarkable thing really is that we have a brain that is capable of handling this.


KAGAN: Take a tour inside the brain, and learn what we're now learning.

We want to once again welcome our viewers joining us in the U.S. and all around the world. I'm Daryn Kagan at the CNN Center in Atlanta.


Many people are outing the future of artificial intelligence in this new millennium, but what about human intelligence?

KAGAN: Scientists have been studying the brain for centuries and they're still trying to unlock its mysteries and the source of its amazing power.

CNN's Michael Holmes takes a look inside the human brain.


MICHAEL HOLMES, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): I think, therefore I am. The words of 17th century philosopher Rene Descartes succinctly describing what makes human beings unique among life on earth: our ability to think, to reason, to invent and to adapt.

NASA MISSION CONTROL: Lift off of the space shuttle Discovery.

GREENOUGH: Intelligence, I think, is the ability to handle successfully anything that your environment may throw at you.

HOLMES: And as we enter the new millennium, our environment is increasingly throwing more and more at us. The most obvious job our brains have is processing the enormous amounts of sensory information that bombard us.

GREENOUGH: Everything that we know from studies of animals suggests that the brain is very, very well adapted to capturing and storing information from the stream that's flowing by us. So that we're able to, sort of, parse the stream of all of the things that we're seeing and hearing and experiencing through our various sensor modalities. Clearly there's something very special about the human brain that allows us to do that.

HOLMES: The brain is a three-pound package tucked safely within our skulls. Billions of nerve cells communicating with each other in a complex web of electrochemical connections. The largest portion is the cerebral cortex, the center of reasoning, planning, problem- solving, voluntary movement, language and writing, as well as processing sensory input.

The second largest area of your brain is the cerebellum, which controls muscular coordination including walking and speaking.

And the brain stem; it controls the most basic functions of life: your heart and your lungs.

GREENOUGH: In everyday interactions with the world, you would glide smoothly between using one set of structures for one thing you were doing at this moment, to another completely different set of structures.

HOLMES: Scientists are only beginning to completely understand the full power of the brain, the complex interplay of chemicals and electrical impulses between individual nerve cells, activity we don't even think about.

GREENOUGH: In everyday behavior, most of what the brain is doing at any point in time is actually stuff that you're not conscious of.

HOLMES: It's morning. The sun rises and so does most of the world. You may have been asleep all night, but your brain has not.

MICHAEL POSNER, DIRECTOR, SACHLER INSTITUTE: It's a very active organ and it's never inactive. That is, even if you're at repose and not thinking hard about anything, some areas of the brain are quite active.

HOLMES: On the road, you're concentrating on the car in front of you while your brain focuses on a whole lot more: evaluating your senses, what you see, hear and even feel through the steering wheel, and reacting based on motor skills physically ingrained in your brain when you learn to drive.

GREENOUGH: The region of the cerebral cortex that specifically deals with the muscles of the body called the motor cortex is altered when we learn a motor skill.

HOLMES: In fact, all learning, formal education or day-to-day experience, alters the structure of the nerve cells in your brain. POSNER: Learning, in fact, changes brain systems. We know that. It can change sensory systems and it can change the connections between neural areas.

GREENOUGH: There are changes in the relationships among all of the pieces of tissue that make up the brain that are, as best we can tell, dynamically adjusting themselves moment to moment.

HOLMES (on camera): At every moment of every day, our sensors are being flooded. The sights, the sounds, the smells, the textures of our environment all flow into our brains, where they are then filtered by a structure called the thalamus. Now, that information is then processed and stored in our brains as memories, and you weren't even aware it was happening.

GREENAUGH: One of the things that really does contribute to human intelligence, human adaptability to a complex world is the enormous human capacity for memory.

HOLMES (voice-over): And you draw on those memories at all times as well. You may think talking to a friend is simple, but your brain is working hard, triggering memories stimulated by what you're hearing and seeing, choosing an appropriate response and causing the physical movements of speech. We're rarely aware of what it takes to do what we think are simple tasks.

GREENAUGH: When you do something you're aware of, like pitching a baseball, your body does all kinds of things that you're completely unaware of that prevent you from falling flat on your face.

HOLMES (on camera): Another example: It's a cold day, a little like today. Perhaps you feel your fingers or toes start to go a little numb. Well, that's a sure sign that your hypothalamus is working, regulating your body temperature, constricting the blood vessels in your extremities, and sending the blood to where you need it most to survive.

Standing on a sidewalk next to a busy street, you'll of course hear plenty of traffic noise. But where you'd hear a screech of brakes, or a blaring horn, your body will likely respond with a jolt of adrenaline, preparing you for possible danger.

(voice-over): That's, in part, the work of the almond-shaped structure known as the amygdala, which processes emotions like fear and anxiety.

GREENAUGH: Most people assume that the brain is a, sort of, passive organ, that it just, kind of, sits there and thinks, and they have no idea what an active, dynamic place the brain would appear to them if they could get inside of it and look around it when it's working.

HOLMES: The ability to thrive in a complex environment with a variety of fast-paced visual and social stimulations is a hallmark of human intelligence. GREENAUGH: We've created an enormously complicated world compared to the world that we evolved in. The remarkable thing really is that we have a brain that is capable of handling this, that's been able to take on this enormous challenge and deal with it successfully. And we are the only species that's done so.

HOLMES: New technology and research has shown the brain is a remarkably complex and dynamic organ. And as we head to an even more complex millennium, our brains will be up to the challenge.

Michael Holmes, CNN.


KAGAN: We have heard how the brain works. Next, how to make yours work better.

CLANCY: Do we all have the potential to be Einsteins? Coming up, expert advice on boosting your memory and intelligence.


KAGAN: And welcome back to CNN's "Millennium 2000" coverage. We're focusing this hour on the brain and the mysteries that scientists still have to unravel about the remarkable organ. Joining us to discuss that is Dr. Chris Hertzog, he is a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, affectionately known around here in Atlanta as Georgia Tech, the Yellowjackets. Welcome, Dr. Hertzog.


KAGAN: First give us a very brief understanding of how this works. Does my brain remember every single thing that it's ever heard, or seen, or done, and it just chooses to filter certain things?

HERTZOG: Well, that's certainly a leading viewpoint. We don't really know for sure. But many theorists believe that in fact what you said is actually true, that we do record everything. The problem is getting it back out again.

KAGAN: And I understand that one thing that you focus on is memory and memory as we get older, which a lot of people not mix up, but they all lump into one category as being Alzheimer's. But it's two different things. Not everyone that gets older and has memory problems has Alzheimer's.

HERTZOG: Absolutely. As a matter of fact, it's critical for people to understand that, that there is a very small percentage of people, about 14 percent by the end of the decade of the '70s that have Alzheimer's disease. Most of us will not contract the disease.

KAGAN: We won't. But will most of us have memory problems as we get older?

HERTZOG: Well, that's an interesting question. One of the things that we've been looking at is individual differences in how people grow older, and there's a big movement now in our field to try to define successful aging, which is really to understand the ways in which you don't necessarily need to show certain kinds of negative changes as you get older. But it's certainly true that all of us are under -- going to undergo some change. The real issue is how much and how much functional impact will it have on our lives, and the good news is that it doesn't seem to have as much functional on everyday life for people as we had originally thought 23 years ago.

KAGAN: So in the same way you can take care of your body as you get older, you can also take care of your mind and your memory and have a more successful older age?

HERTZOG: Well, that's the $64 million question, isn't it?

KAGAN: And if I knew that...


HERTZOG: And we're working hard on it. Right now, we do have some evidence that suggests that individuals do differ in how quickly they get older in terms of memory function and that those individual differences are related to things like lifestyle, but not necessarily social activities or, you know, being active in a social sense, but rather more being active in a intellectual sense. Exercising the mind is a metaphor people often use. Now, the evidence is not conclusive -- there is some controversy about it -- but there is evidence out there suggesting that those individuals who maintain an active mind as they get older are going to do better.

CLANCY: What are these brain exercises that you talk about? The specific things that people can do to prevent memory problems as they get older.

HERTZOG: Well, we don't know that for -- in the specific, that is to say which kinds of activities are better than others. Part of the problem is that it's so difficult to measure this. We're actually looking at different people as they get older, trying to measure all the different aspects of their lives and trying to isolate those mechanisms that are important. It's a tough task.

What we do know, though, is that it seems to be more generically getting involved in intellectually engaging activities is probably the most important thing. So, for example, reading, simulating material, perhaps going to the opera, if you like, whatever an individual finds intellectually engaging, reading the newspaper, some individuals talk about crossword puzzles. We don't really know what a magic bullet is. There may not be such a thing. But what it -- we do believe is important is that individuals stay active and mentally engaged in their lives.

KAGAN: That sounds like some good advice. Dr. Hertzog, we're going to ask you to standby here. Don't forget, stay right here.

CLANCY: Fascinating stuff, really.

KAGAN: Yes. And we're going to continue our conversation on the brain. Coming up, how to process stress. We continue our discussion on brain power with a look at emotions.

CLANCY: What makes some people calm, while others are almost out of control. That food for thought, when we come back.


KAGAN: Well, we continue our conversation about the brain and the mind. One of the most fascinating and least understood aspects of the human mind is the role of emotions. How much are we controlled by our emotions and how we much can we learn to control them? Helping us explore that subject is an authority on emotional intelligence, Dr. Richard Davidson, he's a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin. Dr. Davidson, happy New Year, welcome, thanks for joining us.

DR. RICHARD DAVIDSON, UNIV. OF WISCONSIN: Thank you, it's a pleasure to be here.

KAGAN: What is emotional intelligence and how is that different than measuring someone's IQ?

DAVIDSON: Well, emotional intelligence refers to differences among people in how they react to life stresses and challenges. People -- one of the characteristics of emotion that is so salient is that people differ in their adaptability or their reactivity to life's slings and arrows. Some people are very resilient, and they're able to cope very effectively with the challenges that life brings. Other people are much more sensitive to certain kinds of stresses and challenges and react much more intensely and for a much more prolonged period of time. So emotional intelligence is a general phrase that we use to refer to a whole rubric of differences in how people react to emotionally challenging events in their environment.

KAGAN: And you've actually tracked to which parts of the brain that we deal with emotion and who might deal with it better or worse?

DAVIDSON: We have. We use a variety of techniques to do this, and one of the key parts of the brain that we've zeroed in on is an area of the brain that we call the pre-frontal cortex. The pre- frontal cortex is a large mass of the brain, and if we look across evolution, across bilogeny (ph), it turns out that this area of the brain has grown disproportionately in humans, so it's larger in the human species than it is in any other species, and this is the area of the brain which is so critically important for our capacity to control our emotions as well as the area of the brain that seems to go awry when various types of emotional disorders are present.

KAGAN: And do you find that some people just have a better, or nicer or bigger pre-frontal cortex than other people do?

DAVIDSON: Well, It's not quite that simple. But one of the remarkable findings that's emerged from our work as well as the work of other scientists, is that the left and right sides of the pre- frontal cortex differ importantly in the types of emotions that they appear to control. The left pre-frontal cortex appears to be part of the circuit which is very important in the control of certain types of positive emotions, whereas the right pre-frontal cortex is part of the circuit which is involved in the control of certain types of negative emotions.

And what's most remarkable, is that people differ in the characteristic level of activation in these different regions of the pre- frontal cortex. Some people who we would characterize as having a very positive emotional disposition have higher activity in the left pre-frontal cortex, and these are individuals who are resilient, optimistic, see the world through rosy-colored glasses. They're the kind of people who jump out of bed in the morning and are ready to take on the world. These are individuals who we also find are able to cope more effectively with life's slings and arrows.

CLANCY: Dr. Davidson, have you done any studies -- how does mass media effect this emotional intelligence that you talk about, the way that people respond to life's arrows and flings?

DAVIDSON: Well, we don't know definitively how mass media effects these areas of the brain, but we do know that these areas of the brain are very importantly modulated or contoured by the environments in which we live.

The viewers heard in your introductory piece how important the brain is for certain types of learning. We know that these circuits in the brain are critically influenced, particularly by exposure to emotional environments early in life. Some emotional environments may be facilitating in terms of one's adaptive response to stress, and other types of environments may lead to a more deleterious response to stressful events. And one critical component of the environment is likely to be the mass media, although precisely how the mass media effects this area of the brain is the subject of current research, and the answers to that are not known definitively at present.

KAGAN: Dr. Davidson, getting back to this left brain, right brain theory -- is this the kind of thing that, in years to come, that if someone has a negative outlook on life or is suffering from depression, something could be done through drugs or through some kind of procedure that would make them more of a left-brain people, and happier about being here than a right brain person?

DAVIDSON: Well, it's a critically important issue which our work and the work of a number of other scientists is focused on. We do know that there are certain types of procedures, such as antidepressant medication, as well as cognitive therapy and non- pharmacological intervention, that do effect these areas of the brain. This in conjunction with other work that indicates that the brain, even through adult life, is capable of what we call "plasticity," that is changing the connections among areas, which would facilitate certain kinds of responses and minimize other kinds of responses.

In our own work, we've been exploring the effects of a number of different therapeutic techniques, such as medication, as well as more novel techniques like meditation, which have been around for thousands of years, but scientific research is only beginning to understand. Some of these techniques are likely to influence our emotional responses through changes in the pre-frontal cortex. And we are, I think very likely to see over the next five years dramatic advances in scientific understanding of how these techniques effect our brain and thereby effect our reactivity to emotional events in our environment.

KAGAN: It's going to be fascinating to watch. Dr. Richard Davidson, in Washington, Dr. Chris Hertzog, here from Georgia Tech. To my right, my brain is telling me it's time to wrap, we have to move on.

We'll take a quick break, and we'll be back right after this.

ANNOUNCER: This man kept his feet planted firm on the ground. Do you know who he is? The answer, when we return.


ANNOUNCER: Do you recognize this man who had his feet firmly planted on the ground? It's Sir Isaac Newton, the 17th century physicist and mathematician. His three laws of motion resulted in the formulation of the law of universal gravitation; in other words, what goes up must come down. And for those of you who have struggled through calculus, you can thank Newton. He discovered infinitesimal calculus, considered one of the most important events in the history of modern science.

CLANCY: We face many unknowns as this new century unfolds, but one thing is almost certain, and it's frightening. Scientists say as many as half of all plant and animal species could become extinct in the next 50 to 100 years. That is our focus in the next hour of CNN's millennium 2000 coverage.

KAGAN: We'll have that and the day's top news stories just ahead. Stay with us.


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