Evolution and Exercise: What Made The Brain Get Bigger

by PRIBUT on AUGUST 3, 2009 (retrieved from Internet Archive )

Stimulating Brain Development: Evolution Of The Brain Spurred By Movement (a speculative hypothesis)

We previously mentioned the early hominid development of upright, obligatory, habitual bipedal posture mentioning the richer protein and calorie dense food which may have enabled better brain development. We’ll expand on that a bit with a “big think” and take it down a slightly different road. And we can have a bit of fun with a speculative hypothesis.

My thought (and hypothesis) is that exercise, viewed as aerobic movement, was the spur to development of a larger brain as is found in later hominids and modern humans. Tool making, enhanced socialization, all other more modern features and the larger cortex itself derive from motion, movement, and the positive effect that “exercise” has on the chemistry of the brain.

As we stop and think about what made the brain enlarge we hear those who say that bipedal movement freed up our hands. Now you can walk and juggle or do other tricks.  Another theory posits that early hominids could now carry food back to their tribe, make tools, ultimately jewelry and developed other useful talents. Whatever occurred likely was multi-factorial and not a simple single means event.

In keeping with Darwinian principles, it is incorrect to say that the environment created changes. We need to look to see what environmental features were taken advantage of by those best prepared to do so. Mutations are random, selection is purposeful, and geared towards the survival of those most fit for the environment. There are a variety of phenotypes present at any time, and those exhibiting desirable and helpful characteristics do survive and pass on those useful genes.

Mammalian brains produce BDNF (brain derived neurotrophic factor) which assists in neural plasticity and in the creation of new neural cross links. Humans today moving at high rates of oxygen uptake show that at up to 60% of maximum VO2, several things come into play. The first is an increase in Cerebral Blood Flow (CBF). The CBF increases as does the production of  BDNF and other compounds that among other effects stimulate brain growth and development. These other compounds include IGF-1 (insulin growth factor 1), VEGF (vascular endothelial growth factor), and FGF (fibroblast growth factor).

Bathing the brain in this enhanced biochemical “miracle grow” mix, likely would have resulted in superior neural growth and response for those who were best able to respond to this physical and neurological environment.  This seems to have been a contributing factor in the maximal development of the early hominid brain, and continued down through the hominid line.brain







Those most able to respond to the biochemical results of their activity of  motion, movement, and gathering would have become the smartest of the lot and been most likely to survive . They would be better suited for survival and more able to pass on their genes.  Bipedal movement in hominids was first to be short in duration. Lasting for only a limited distance and allowed for limited scavenging.  Ultimately it resulted in habitual and obligate bipedalism of longer duration, and finally in walking and then, later, running.

There have been debates over the energetics of bipedal motion versus brachiation and advantages over older forms of quadripedal locomotion. But with the thought that nothing gets wasted, if the energetics don’t balance perfectly it is probable that the energy itself that may not have been optimally efficient for walking, certainly was put to excellent use in the development, enhancement, and gradual evolution of the hominid and ultimately modern human brain.

Bipedal walking allowed the former tree apes a  better and more easily sustained motion. This  over the course of time, possibly led to persistence hunting, or at the least an expanded range for gathering, foraging, and then much later hunting. And the migration out of Africa was another sustained effort and may have stimulated brain development.

Sensory stimuli, socialization, diet, and many factors went into brain evolution and development. Then, as now, it is likely that the sustained efforts of moving increased focus, attention, and concentration. Creating mental maps of where they had been, and how to return home gave their small brains a work out. And speculating a bit, ultimately mental maps led to many other things and perhaps even primitive games of hide and seek.  Later came blind folded chess and google maps.

Many facets of evolutionary thought are interesting and valuable. Socialization and network theory, the role of sensory stimulation all are explorable, viable theories and played a major role in evolution. Here we’ve brought into play another facet of hominid evolution not previously described. The energetics and resultant neurochemical (and other changes) as a result of  motion, movement and exercise is a contributing and driving force for brain development and evolution. Put this in the context of the fact that everything moves and there is nothing entirely still in the universe, we have another small factor to consider about our world and how we and it have evolved.

So it seems we weren’t just born to walk or run. We were born to think, develop and evolve. In fact, we’ve evolved to evolve. And evolution continues today. If your thoughts stop with barefoot running, and you think our evolution stopped then, you’ve got a lot more thinking and catching up to do. Exercise and movement are good for what ails you, and assisted in the development of today’s modern human brain.

(Outline presented at American Podiatric Medical Association Annual Scientific Seminar. August 1, 2009. Toronto, Canada)

(Link on Wayback Machine – Internet Archive)