What sea squirts can teach us about brains

Bluebell tunicates are bottle-shaped sea squirts. Photo by Nick Hobgood
John Onians, a professor emeritus of art studies from the University of East Anglia in England, recently spoke at Emory about the links between neuroscience and art history. His eclectic talk also included a reference to sea squirts, which was highlighted in "ThoughtWork," the newsletter of the Academic Exchange: "Why do we have a brain? I didn't know this previously: The reason we have a brain is because like all other organisms from amoebas to elephants, we need to move in order to reproduce and get food. A plant can reproduce and get food without moving. That's why plants don't have brains. This is illustrated by this marvelous creature the sea squirt. The sea squirt swims around the ocean until it's found a place where it can settle, and then when it settles it attaches itself and then it proceeds to consume its own brain because it no longer needs it, which is often unflatteringly compared to a professor that gets tenure. It is important to remember that the brain is there to help us move in order to get things which are of vital importance to us. The brain isn't primarily consumed with knowledge, the sort of things we were taught about. That was just an idea that the Greeks had because it was a good way of getting young men to forget their emotions. But really everything we do is driven by our emotional needs."Source: eScienceCommons

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