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Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Brain size and complex thoughts

I have been thinking a lot lately about self-awareness and other abstract brain functions as compared to the size on one's brain.

One thing that I find tremendously interesting is that people of differing head sizes don;t, necessarily, have intelligence that correlates to their brain size. The volume and shape of the cavity in their skull is not the determining factor in the overall ability for them to process information and make use of it.

Why then, do humans seem to be at the top of the intelligence scale?
What makes us so different if the differences in brain sizes amongst us are not the single-most deterministic variable for human intelligence?

Does this mean that other animals are smarter than humanity gives them credit for?

I think so.
For example I have several pets.

I have a dog:

and I have three ferrets:

(Yes, there are actually three of them in the same pouch)

There used to be four ferrets but this guy has moved on:

And I have a sugar glider:

And, for the sake of this discussion I will include a visitor of variable frequency who likes the free food in my kitchen in the winter:

Watching these animals on a daily (in some cases) basis makes me contemplate how much they think and understand their world. It makes me wonder how much they contemplate things. It makes me wonder what goes on in their heads.

I know, without any hesitation of uncertainty, that they think. I know that they are different. Each of the four ferrets above have (had) vastly different personalities. Each of them have very different behavioral patterns. Each of them differs greatly from any of the other animals shown on this page.

For example this guy:

understands the concept of confinement. He understands that he likes being out of his cage and he understands that he likes being in the playpen. He understands he likes space. He also understands the basic needs and that people are his caregivers.
I'm not sure; however, that he understands much more than that. He's not stupid, but he's not enticed by trying to do more with his life than play, sleep, eat and go potty.

This one, on the other hand, is different:

She, while being about two-thirds the size of the one above, is feisty. She understands the concept of confinement but, more importantly, she also understands the concept of freedom. She understands that a bigger pen is not the same as being free. She understands that freedom is not simply the opposite of confinement. She wants freedom.
She will systematically test the bars on their cage and she will systematically test every vertical post on their playpen. She will move around and around and around the play pen trying to find a means to climb out. She wants to explore and see "the world."
This one has no fear and no conception of boundaries. She has bitten the dog on the nose (his fault - he was harassing them in their playpen) and postured with an attitude that she would take him if he retaliated... and, he believed it.
This little ferret thinks and reasons. She bluffs and lies. She loves and snuggles. She is a complex being. Her "brother" is a simple animal that lives a simple life.

The other pets, the dog and the sugar glider, each have their own agendas. The dog understands freedom but, more importantly, loneliness and loyalty. He understands who his pack is and that we are more important to him than anything else. He also knows how to lie (all dogs do) and will gladly tell anyone and everyone that no one ever feeds him, that he never gets any love or attention and that he never gets to go for a walk. He also knows he is getting old. He may not know the concepts, but he knows the feelings. He knows that his medication makes him feel better. He knows that if he goes poop on a walk that I make us come back home via our dumpster but if he does not we can come right to the door. He knows that the four-lane road is VERY dangerous and the two-lane road is something to "stay out of." Some of this is conceptual and some of this is simple stimulus-response.
The sugar glider, by far the simplest of my pets, seems to be mostly a stimulus-response animal. The infrequent visitor, who fills the same evolutionary niche but through parallel tracks, and the sugar glider seem to have identical behavior patterns. Food, shelter, water, shelter, warmth. That is what they seek. Things that may threaten them cause them to seek shelter, things that do not threaten them probably will feed them.
My question is, and always will be - what is what? How much can a dog (or ferrets, etc) actually have "going on" in their minds with brains that are so much smaller than human brains?
I think the answer is clear: more than we realize.

I've discussed this with some other animal owners and with friends who are veterinarians (also animal owners) and the ideas vary widely on how much animals conceive and think.

Feel free to chime in on your own below.

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