The Nation's Pulse

The Case of the Missing Tennis Ball

Or how our brains are shrinking.

By 1.13.11

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The notion that humans are growing increasingly dumb has been around for millennia. Socrates, in his Unapologia, noted how his fellow Athenians didn't know their "arse from an urn." And Desiderius Erasmus was equally appalled by the ignorance of his Dutch neighbors. Not only were they all going to hell, he said, but they would probably get lost along the way.

I've been saying the same thing to my lovely wife for years, but she has always dismissed my thoughts as more examples of my celebrated misanthropy. Now I can wave a new study in her face and say, "Ha!"

That is, I can once I figure out how to download the pdf. And, apparently, you have to be some kind of Einstein to print the damn thing.

The news might seem like a no-brainer, but some folks are skeptical. "How do researchers really know we're getting dumber?" they stupidly ask. According to this article in Discover, over the past 20,000 years human males have lost a chunk of brain roughly the size of a tennis ball. (I would have thought a golf ball, since that's the sort of thing we tend to lose most often, but I digress.) This will not be news to women, who have been saying the same thing for roughly 40,000 years. But before you gals get all smug, the same research says women have lost about the same size chunk o' brain. And with each passing millennium, that tennis ball is starting to look more and more like a tennis racket.

It makes sense. Anecdotal evidence of our incredible shrinking brains is all around us.

SIGNS THAT WE ARE GETTING DUMBER:

• The Dallas man who recently tried to cash a forged check for 360 BILLION DOLLARS. 

• Last year's public school test scores.

• This year's public school test scores.

• Warning labels on containers of rat poison: "Harmful if swallowed."

• The fact that we are even talking about Jersey Shore's Nicole "Snooki" Polizzi.

• The fact that we allow Oprah to choose the books we read.

• Computer scientists create breakthrough technology and we use it to keep tabs on the Kardashians.

WE USED TO THINK evolution was making us smarter. Mother Nature was supposed to thin the herd of dummies, or, more accurately, the dummies would take care of themselves, usually while engaged in some dubious activity that involved a bungee cord. You remember all those 1960s sci-fi films where the people of the future had these ginormous brains that made their heads look like environmentally unfriendly incandescent light bulbs? (Speaking of dumb, didn't the filmmakers realize that you'd need thicker, weightlifter necks to support those massive brains?) Anyway, the idea was that we'd evolve bigger brains, much like we've evolved bigger butts and thighs.

Instead, our brains have been shrinking since the Stone Age.

But just because we'll all be pinheads in a couple thousand years, doesn't mean all hope is lost.

Or maybe it does. 

Researchers aren't sure what these findings mean. (Apparently, evolution is affecting their thinking too.) But some think that maybe the brain isn't necessarily losing braininess, it's just becoming leaner and meaner, like one of those Fortune 500 companies after they have laid off all the liberal arts majors. Only, in this case, the laid-off liberal arts majors are the chunks of the brain that were just kind of sitting up there in the cranium and taking up space (sort of like the liberal arts majors).

Liberal arts majors, however, eventually go to law school and become trial lawyers, while those large chunks of our brain just atrophy, which is a waste, though not as much of a waste as becoming a trial lawyer.

These researchers believe our big-brained ancestors of the Upper Paleolithic era must have been a lot smarter than we are now (and judging from the on-going health care debate, I would agree.) So what were those ancient brainiacs doing? Apparently, they were living in France and painting on the walls of their homes. And if I know French caveman artistes, they certainly thought they were smarter than us anyway.

I used to think that we were getting dumber because the smart people were not passing on their genes. Now we know that that no longer matters, because we're doomed regardless. For some reason I find this thought strangely comforting, but it's probably because I'm too dumb to know any better.

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About the Author
Christopher Orlet writes from St. Louis.