The human brain blends impulses from ancient structures that evolved to ensure our survival as a species with newer functions that allow us to imagine, dream and invent.
The evolved human brain is remarkable, said University of Arizona researcher Dr. Katalin Gothard, but so is the brain of a green sea turtle, which aligns itself with the Earth’s magnetic field to navigate tides and ocean currents on a two-year odyssey to mate and reproduce.
We have invented the technology that enables us to survive in a highly sophisticated society, but we would be hard pressed to survive in the wild without those inventions, Gothard said.
Gothard will deliver the fifth lecture in a series on “The Evolving Brain” Monday at the UA’s Centennial Hall.
She will speak about those ancient parts of our brain, still working to automatically provide the primordial physical changes that kick in, for instance in a “fight-or-flight” situation but which are now overlaid with more sophisticated signals from our prefrontal cortexes.
The evolutionarily older parts of our brain work “harmoniously” with our newer ones, so that we get goose bumps, not just in times of fear, but when appreciating an operatic aria, she said.
Animal brains are amazing structures, evolved to give them advantage, Gothard said.
“On the other hand, they cannot write a poem and can’t understand the future.
“We have the ability to understand and shape our future. … We understand our own mortality.”
“It is difficult to compare us with animals in terms of evolutionary advantage. An animal increases fitness to survive in a particular environment — a natural environment. We have to survive in a man-made environment.”
It won’t be part of her talk, but Gothard has personal experience with imagining a better future.
She was a medical student in her native Romania during the final years of the 25-year reign of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and had established ties and a secret correspondence with the UA’s John Hildebrand about medical research in the West, where she wanted to come to study.
“I got caught. I got in a lot of trouble. They interrogated me and kept me under surveillance.
“They did not destroy me. They didn’t know how big a noise Hildebrand would make,” she said.
“There were times when things were very bleak, but hope is a wonderful thing, and I had something to hope for. My father told us that this regime would fall. I had hope that I would get out.”
When the revolt against Ceausescu came, “it was incredibly scary. There were guns and weapons and tanks, but people were so desperate that from somewhere came the courage to go out against those tanks.”
The regime fell in 1989. Ceausescu and his wife were executed, and Gothard eventually made her way to the West.
“It was John (Hilde-
brand) who got me here as a graduate student in neuroscience,” she said. She had completed her medical doctorate in Romania and received her Ph.D. from the UA in 1996.
Gothard did postdoctoral research at the University of California-Davis before returning to the UA to join the faculty. Her research centers on the neural basis of emotion in primates.
She is an associate professor in the departments of physiology and neurobiology, and the Evelyn F. McKnight Brain Institute.