Adaptation is not only the key to survival and the source of much of our creativity. Adapting often requires us to use tools, objects, and even our brains in new ways. The most powerful tools are usually the most general. For example - our hands - while wings and fins evolved from the same basic structure as our hands, they evolved toward specialization while our hands evolved toward generality. We can use our hands for the most delicate of tasks, as well as those that require force. Most importantly, this generality gave us our ability to manipulate the world around us in a conscious way.
We’ve also generalized our mental functions. Since ancient times people have used “memory palaces” to leverage our amazing spatial processing and navigation skills into a means to remember speeches, epic poetry and oral histories verbatim. Now, our ability to image the brain has allowed us to study this form of adaptation more thoroughly. Eleanor Maguire showed that world memory champions use navigation areas like the retrosplenial cortex and hippocampus during memorization. Studies show that these navigational areas are also active when people imagine the future, while another new study by Knops et al. indicate that we use parietal areas involved in eye movements and spatial coding during mental arithmetic.
Our ability to generalize and adapt doesn’t stop with our anatomy. In the last decade we’ve developed more and more general tools. By generalizing the way we deal with data itself, we can build tools that are capable of manipulating text, images and video, perform sophisticated mathematical analyses, and allow us to communicate with each other. Applications like Google Trader are allowing people in sub-Saharan Africa to buy and sell goods to each other without using the middle men who have traditionally reaped all the profits from these transactions. Evolving technologies are helping to vitalize and define new economies in these countries.