Creativity as a survival benefit: Researchers have identified 267 genes that are critical to our creativity and problem-solving skills – and that differentiate our species from Neanderthals and chimpanzees. They form the genetic basis for skills such as creative thinking, self-control and self-confidence. However, these gene networks are only fully developed in Homo sapiens, while Neanderthals only had parts of them, as the DNA comparisons show.
What is the difference between Homo sapiens and Neanderthals – and why did our ancestors prevail over their Ice Age cousins around 40,000 years ago? To date, there is no clear answer to this question. Because archaeological finds and DNA analyzes have recently demonstrated time and again that the Neanderthals were more similar to us in their behavior and cognitive abilities than long thought.
Advantage through creativity and innovation?
But where are the differences then? Igor Zwir from the University of Granada and his team now provide evidence that our ancestors were ahead of the Neanderthals, primarily because of their ability to think creatively. “Compared to other hominids, Homo sapiens shows a remarkable creativity: It demonstrates innovation, flexibility, forward planning and also has the cognitive prerequisites for symbolism and self-confidence,” explain the researchers.
Zwir and his team have now investigated whether this creative lead can also be demonstrated in brain function and genes. To do this, they first determined which neural circuits in the modern human brain are responsible for various personality traits, including creativity, and which genes control them. To do this, they carried out standardized personality tests linked to brain scans and analyzes of gene activity in test subjects from different cultures.
Three networks for creative problem solving
It turned out that we humans have three neural networks that influence essential aspects of our creativity and innovation. The first is the network of emotional creativity, which primarily involves learning and dealing with challenges in the social field. The second network is used for self-control and, above all, controls conscious and purposeful planning and problem-solving. The third network includes aspects of self-awareness and self-awareness.
Each of these functional circuits in the brain is in turn controlled and influenced by a group of clearly defined genes. The researchers identified a total of 972 genes that control these three networks. In the next step, they investigated whether these genes are also found in Neanderthals and chimpanzees as our closest relatives. To do this, they evaluated several existing DNA sequences from these hominids.
267 genes are unique to us humans
The result: “The three species differ significantly from one another with regard to these gene networks,” report Zwir and his team. It is true that 509 of the 972 genes occur in all three hominid species and 148 more are also found in Neanderthals. 267 genes are only found in Homo sapiens – our species. They are closely linked to our ability to think creatively and problem-solvingly.
A large part of these “typically human” DNA segments, however, are not classic protein-coding genes, as the researchers emphasize. Because with these, Neanderthals, chimpanzees and humans are very similar. Instead, it is primarily a matter of genetic material from so-called “junk DNA” that regulate the activity of the protein-coding genes.
“Their specific functions are largely unclear. It is believed, however, that they coordinate complex processes of adaptation, plasticity and health by regulating the co-expression of other gene groups “,
Creativity networks emerged one after the other
Closer analyzes showed that these genetic differences between chimpanzees, Neanderthals and humans are distributed to different degrees across the three “creativity” networks. According to this, the emotional creativity of the three types hardly differs. The researchers attribute this to the fact that this circuit was created by the common ancestors of all three species: “This most primitive network developed around 40 million years ago in great apes and monkeys,” say the scientists.
It is different with the other two networks – self-control and self-awareness. Their genetic basis is hardly present in chimpanzees, and only partially in Neanderthals. The researchers deduce from this that these personality traits and their biological basis only developed in the course of human history.
“Our study thus reveals for the first time genotypical differences between chimpanzees, Neanderthals and modern humans, which could have promoted the development of human creativity and other aspects of modern behavior,” state Zwir and his colleagues. (Molecular Psychiatry, 2021; doi: 10.1038 / s41380-021-01097-y)