Debunking the Big Brain Myth

Big Brain Myth

Just because we’ve got bigger brains doesn’t mean we’ve got a leg up on the rest of the animal kingdom, concludes new research from Queen Mary, University of London, and Cambridge University. Researchers claim that with the aid of computer generated models, they have determined even remarkably small sized brains are capable of consciousness—with as little as a few hundred nerve cells doing the job.

Apparently, size doesn’t matter so much as we’d like to think. The researchers explain:

“In bigger brains we often don’t find more complexity, just an endless repetition of the same neural circuits over and over. This might add detail to remembered images or sounds, but not add any degree of complexity. To use a computer analogy, bigger brains might in many cases be bigger hard drives, not necessarily better processors.”

Brains simply tend to be larger in larger animals, the researchers explain—and further, size does not seem to be a factor in actual intellect. Perhaps this research will finally put to rest the old and incorrect supposition that humans only use 10% of their brain and, therefore, have tons of unlocked potential (so much for that plot arc on Fringe). What the research seems to demonstrate is, really, it’s not the size of the brain that matters, but rather, how we use it and which neurons are present that contribute to complex processes.

So next time you belittle your cat for her brainlessness, consider that she may be mocking you right back… or at least, she could if she wanted to.

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4 Responses to Debunking the Big Brain Myth

  1. I have known this for a long time. People would say, “Oh! Look! See how big a brain _________ has. It must be intelligent. Specifically about porpoises, whales, and great apes.

    I read a story about an aquatic research lab which kept finding dead and eaten shell fish in its tanks. Nobody could figure out what was happening so they put in a camera.

    Turns out an octopus was throwing an arm out of its tank, dislodging the cover just enough so it could get out, exiting and plopping across the floor, and then up and into a tank, where it proceeded to chow down.

    At this point the intelligence kicks in. Rather than having a post-prandial smoke and a snooze the octopus left the shells in the tank, went back across the floor, and got back into its own tank without leaving a train of shrimp shells and crab claws.

    This is smarter than most people I know, and I don’t think the octopus has what we would call an actual “brain,” just some differentiated nerve cells.

    Some of them also have hundreds or thousands of individual color blulbs under the skin which can be squeezed to put out colors and some octopi can produce anything from a rock-covered ocean bottom to El Greco’s View of Toledo by addressing these individual color generators. Again, most people I know can’t use an Etch-a-Sketch.

  2. I have known this for a long time. People would say, "Oh! Look! See how big a brain _________ has. It must be intelligent. Specifically about porpoises, whales, and great apes.

    I read a story about an aquatic research lab which kept finding dead and eaten shell fish in its tanks. Nobody could figure out what was happening so they put in a camera.

    Turns out an octopus was throwing an arm out of its tank, dislodging the cover just enough so it could get out, exiting and plopping across the floor, and then up and into a tank, where it proceeded to chow down.

    At this point the intelligence kicks in. Rather than having a post-prandial smoke and a snooze the octopus left the shells in the tank, went back across the floor, and got back into its own tank without leaving a train of shrimp shells and crab claws.

    This is smarter than most people I know, and I don't think the octopus has what we would call an actual "brain," just some differentiated nerve cells.

    Some of them also have hundreds or thousands of individual color blulbs under the skin which can be squeezed to put out colors and some octopi can produce anything from a rock-covered ocean bottom to El Greco's View of Toledo by addressing these individual color generators. Again, most people I know can't use an Etch-a-Sketch.

  3. Always thought some animals were far more intelligent than what we like to think.
    I hate it when people say that consciousness is the sole privilege of humankind.

    Totally agree with what you say Nolanimrod.

  4. Always thought some animals were far more intelligent than what we like to think.

    I hate it when people say that consciousness is the sole privilege of humankind.

    Totally agree with what you say Nolanimrod.