photo of erin hecht
Erin Hecht, PhD
Assistant Professor of Human Evolutionary Biology, Harvard University
Plasticity and Adaptation in Brain Evolution

Human brains are specialized for behaviors like tool use and language which clearly rely on intertwined innate and acquired mechanisms. On one hand, human brains possess evolved adaptations that support these abilities. On the other hand, the skills themselves are not innate: we aren’t born knowing how to speak or write, or use a fork or a computer. However, all healthy humans do readily acquire these skills during early life. This implies that our early ancestors had the ability to learn initial versions of these behaviors, but without the alacrity that exists today. Over generations, our brains must have evolved to support faster, more reliable, and more complex skill acquisition within these particular domains. Theorists have long posited feedback loops between behavior and evolution, but surprisingly little neuroscience research has probed this topic. How do brains evolve innate adaptations for learned skills? Our lab addresses this question using neuroimaging, histology, microscopy, and behavior analyses in humans, our living primate relatives, and other species. In particular, we study domesticated dogs and other canids as “natural experiments” in brain-behavior evolution. Current projects include comparisons of innate and acquired traits in the brains of trained and untrained working dogs, and in language-trained and non-language-trained apes; examination of human brain plasticity during evolutionarily-relevant technological skill learning; gene-environment interactions in dogs’ responses to early life stress; neural mechanisms of tameness and attachment in domesticated dogs and foxes; and the influence of scaling effects on brain connectivity patterns of behavioral flexibility across the animal kingdom.