Is a whale smarter than a person? Print E-mail
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Good question. The largest brain on earth belongs to the sperm whale, the same species as the main character in Melville's yarn. The adult sperm whale brain is 8,000 cubic centimeters. Our brain is about 1300 cubic centimeters. Porpoises and elephants, fellow mammals known for their extraordinary mental abilities, also have bigger brains than we humans. A closer look at the neuroanatomy of the human and whale brain reveals that the whale cerebral cortex is much more convoluted than the human cortex. The area of the human neocortical surface is 2,275 cm2 (about the size of a dinner napkin), but the common dolphin neocortical area is 3,745 cm2 (bigger than an unfolded news paper). The sperm whale? No one has measured it, but it's vastly larger than a newspaper. Applying the fudge factor of dividing cortical surface area by brain weight does not help: humans have a "gyrification index" of 1.75, but dolphins top out at 2.7, and the killer whale, a brilliant predator that hunts in packs, exceeds this. Intelligence resides in the neocortex (the thin, convuluted "rind" of the brain) rather than in other, underlying areas devoted to controlling vital housekeeping functions for the body, so Eriksen and Pakkenberg focused their investigation there. The frontal lobes of the dolphin brain are comparatively smaller than in other mammals, but the researchers found that the neocortex of the Minke whale was surprisingly thick. The whale neocortex is thicker than that of other mammals and roughly equal to that of humans (2.63 mm).

However, the layered structure of the whale neocortex is known to be simpler than that of humans and most other mammals. In particular, whales lack cortical layer IV, and thus have five neocortical layers to humankind's six. This means that the wiring of connections into and out of the neocortex is much different in whales than in other mammals. Is the whale brain intellectually weaker than the human brain, or just different? They have fewer neurons but more glia, and in traditional views of the glia, the neurons count for much more. But if glia process information too, does the different ratio in Minke whales mean they think not more weakly but just much differently?

You're probably now wondering, as I have, what goes on in a whale's head -- and why, if it's supposedly so smart, it doesn't have great works to show for it. Many have argued that humans dominate the planet because we have manipulative hands that enable us to make tools, be they harpoons or missiles. What would be the cetacean equivalent? One wonders how different life on earth might have been if humans, big brains and all, had flippers instead of hands -- and, perhaps, a lot more glia.

I hope that answers your question!

Last Updated ( Tuesday, 15 April 2008 14:02 )
 
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