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The Human Spark: Brain Matters

Airs Wednesday, August 25, 2010 at 8 p.m. on KPBS TV

Host and narrator Alan Alda poses in front of his brain scan at the Universit...

Credit: Courtesy of WNET.ORG

Above: Host and narrator Alan Alda poses in front of his brain scan at the University of Oregon. This three-part series explores what makes us human.

Uniquely human abilities — to think in symbols; recombine those symbols into infinite meanings; invent a technology to disseminate the message; ponder the past; speculate about the future; imagine the unknown; build cities; compose music — constitute the “human spark.” In this three-part series, host Alan Alda searches for the origin and nature of this spark.

In the third program, viewers literally peer into Alda’s head with a variety of high-tech imaging techniques, looking for his human spark. The unique circuitry that provides us with our most prized ability, language, is closely tied to another unique human skill, our ability to make and use complex tools. In his own brain, Alda finds the site of his ability to figure out what others are thinking. And in perhaps the biggest surprise, he discovers that the essential human spark, our ability to build alternative worlds in our heads — to imagine — lies in a brain region closely related to that used when thinking about others’ minds — and that fires most fiercely when we are doing nothing at all.

Watch Episode One: "Becoming Us"

Watch Episode Two: "So Human, So Chimp"

The Human Spark: Brain Matters

At Oxford University, Alan Alda finds out from Robin Dunbar how human social networks compare to those of chimps, and at Yale University, watches babies as young as three months old pick cooperative puppets over those that won't play.

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