SciAm’s Mind Matters blog has a completely fascinating post on the common assumption that humans have the the most complex brain of all the animals. Compared to a whale, however, our brain is smaller and has even less cortical folds. Does that mean they’re smarter?
The article is by neuroscientist R. Douglas Fields and takes a comparative look at brain size, relation to body size, and function across the species.
It turns out, we’re perhaps not quite so special as we like to believe. Even on the ratio of brain to body size, humans are beaten by the humble tree shrew.
We humans pride ourselves on our big brains. We never seem to tire of bragging about how our supreme intelligence empowers us to lord over all other animals on the planet. Yet the biological facts don’t quite square with Homo sapiens’ arrogance. The fact is, people do not have the largest brains on the planet, either in absolute size or in proportion to body size. Whales, not people, have the biggest brains of any animal on earth.
Just how smart are whales? Why do they have such big brains? Bigger is not always better; maybe the inflated whale brain is not very sophisticated on a cellular level. We’re closer to answering such questions now, for a couple of recent papers address them squarely. What they find is helping separate fact from fiction.
Glial cells were traditionally thought to do nothing more than support and insulate the neurons, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that they’re actually part of the brain’s processing system (although they’re exact role is far from clear).
So maybe there’s a lot more to the whale brain that it first appears.
Link to ‘Are Whales Smarter Than We Are?’.