Feeling frisky? Want a fight? You could be thinking like a fish

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The inner workings of your brain might be more fish than you think, research into brain circuitry states.

Studies from the University of Texas, and published this week in the journal Science, have found links in the structure of the brain between numerous vertebrates, including reptiles, fish, birds and mammals.

And why not? After all, we humans have only appeared on the scene in our current form a few hundred thousand years back, and when we did it was through slow and gradual evolution rather than an explosive entry on to the scene with a whole new, rebuilt package of mental hardware.

We inherited an awful lot from our primeval ancestors, so it would be crazy to suspect that we hadn’t carried any of their traits with us…

The research was geared around genes known to be involved in social behaviours, especially those concerned with mate choosing and aggressive rivalries.

After studying the existing data on the subject, brain slices across ranges of species were investigated to observe the genes’ expressions in some 12 regions of the brain. These parts of the brain are known to be directly involved with the networks for making social decisions.

Understandably, similarities were found between groups of animals, such as reptiles. But more interesting were the links that were found across the different and further flung groups, the things shared across the board.

Hans Hoffman of the University of Texas speculates that due to the preservation of these networks so far back into the vertebrate line, they must have been present some 450 million years ago, when the first limbed beasts shed off their fins and scales, and trudged ashore.

Of course, different animals have different cues for, say, finding a mate. Some fish like pheromones to guide them, whereas birds might prefer a visual display. The key point is that despite the differences between what comes in and what goes out in terms of stimulus and response, the network being used to make the decisions is the same across the spectrum. Whether you’re scaly or feathery, furry or leathery, the network comes alive in processing what the risks are in social situations, what the rewards are, and whether the aggregate gain is beneficial or not.

Although humans were not a direct part of the test — most likely because of the brain-slicing element involved — Hoffman’s prediction is that humans will be very similar to other mammals.

The only real difference between mammalian life and other forms of vertebrate is the presence of our central cortex. This may bulk up our social decision networks, but at this time it’s hard to say with any clarity just how much input it has on the process.

Either way, the next time you find yourself falling in love, or getting caught up in a brawl, it might be worth taking stock of something fishy inside you that’s making your decisions on your behalf.

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