So long, and thanks for all the fish, suckers

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.

It turns out that while whales have bigger brains, humans have more neurons. Nevertheless, whales have more glial cells.

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?’.

6 Comments

  1. Steve
    Posted January 24, 2008 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

    Interesting, but I think the rhetoric is a bit much. After all, how many hospitals or computers have whales built? This whole notion that humans are no better than all of the other animals is apposite to common sense.

  2. jpn
    Posted January 24, 2008 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

    This is 2nd time.
    I’d like to have an answer.
    Hi! I bought the book in japanese. I have one question. hack #93 the picure 10-2, Does it have a name? I know picture 10-1 is called Thatcher Illusion
    I’d like to know the name of this illusion. I’m looking forward to your reply.
    Thnx

  3. Posted January 24, 2008 at 10:06 pm | Permalink

    Hi jpn,
    It doesn’t have a name as far as I know, but do let us know if you find out.

  4. jpn
    Posted January 25, 2008 at 5:13 pm | Permalink

    Hi, Vaughan
    Thank you for your reply. I’m not sure I can find it out. but I’ll try.

  5. Sol
    Posted May 19, 2008 at 5:24 pm | Permalink

    What the hell would a whale need with hospitals and computers? What, like computers that work under water? “Common sense”…

  6. Life Cycle of a Whale
    Posted June 4, 2009 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

    Great Post! Very informative and a great read. I saw this site during my browsing and think it may be relevant http://www.whales.org.za .Keep up the great posts!


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