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Mind & Brain III: What is so special about the human brain?

Also related to Rufus’ Field Notes and the Philosophy of Mind is an article that has popped up on Facebook is Captain Paul Watson’s “social media” article, The Cetacean Brain and Hominid Perceptions of Cetacean Intelligence. Writing about comparisons of intelligence, Watson writes:

Interspecies comparisons focus on the extent of lamination, the total cortical area, and the number and depth of neocortex convolutions. In addition, primary sensory processing relative to problem solving is a significant indicator; this can be described as associative ability. The association or connecting of ideas is a measurable skill: a rat’s associative skill is measured at nine to one. This means that 90 percent of the brain is devoted to primary sensory projection, leaving only 10 percent for associative skills. A cat is one to one, meaning that half the brain is available for associative ability. A chimpanzee is one to three, and a human being is one to nine. We humans need only utilize 10 percent of our brains to operate our sensory organs. Thus the associative abilities of a cat are measurably greater than a rat but less than a chimp, and humans are the highest of all.

Not exactly. The cetacean brain averages one to twenty-five and can range upward to one to forty. The reason for this is that the much larger supralimbic lobe is primarily association cortex. Unlike humans, in cetaceans sensory and motor function control is spread outside the supralimbic, leaving more brain area for associative purposes.

At the top of Watson’s article is this picture of a human brain and a dolphin brain side by side. Besides the fact that the dolphin brain appears to be somewhat larger, what is to be made of the the wider gap between the two lobes, the more complex squiggly things (sulci, I think) and the much bigger cerebellum (it looks like a third lobe beneath the two upper hemispheres).


I know all this might seem a little ridiculous, but there’s no question that various animals certainly do have capabilities far in advance of humans—dogs and hearing, for example, or elephants and memory. And then there is the subject of elephant death rituals.

So what is it that sets the human brain apart from all other animals? That human beings have crossed the symbolic threshold is the ready answer, certainly, but how exactly did that happen? Girard has some interesting thoughts on the subject of course, as does his student, Eric Gans. Sticking with the brain for the moment, neuroscientist Suzana Herculano-Houzel says that a lot of it boils down to cooking. Yes, cooking:


  1. Quin Finnegan says:

    No, that is not a condom Suzana is holding.

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