December 14, 2013KR BlogBlogChatsEnthusiams

The Brains of Animals

The radiologist in me had his interest piqued recently by a documentary that flashed an orca’s brain MRI (Blackfish). I started looking at every image and article Google Scholar could find me about veterinary neuroradiology. I confess I am astonished at how much mammalian brains resemble one another in their organization, architecture, and complexity. Just as human beings possess only a marginal genetic difference from the next “lower” order of primate–all our languages, sciences, tools, and arts the result of this smidgen of code–it appears that the raw matter of thought and perception is, neuroanatomically, subject to only minor variations in organization.

But considerable differences, I notice, in developmental emphasis. That is, animal brain MRIs, compared to human brain MRIs, show strikingly “superhuman” development in selected areas. We have known for centuries that elephants have long memories; the hippocampus is the seat of memory in human beings; the elephant brain looks like a human brain, only with the most gargantuan (the most elephantine) hippocampus imaginable, which is in turn intensely crinkled and convoluted. (Which means there’s a greater surface area, and hence more “processing” going on there.) On that scan, the hippocampus was the place my radiologist’s eye jumped to as I realized—slowly—that I was not looking at a human brain. My first radiological impression, though, was one of familiarity.

Similarly, the olfactory bulb, responsible for the sense of smell, is several times larger in dogs compared to humans, as you would expect. The orca happens to have an extremely crinkly (compared to us) limbic and paralimbic area, two areas which in mammals process emotion. This superhuman development correlates well with the behaviors of orca pods and human families. Human families fragment when the young reach adulthood, with the young splitting off and starting new families of their own, sometimes in farflung cities. The pair bonding between the father and mother may break down well before that (we call this “divorce”). Among orcas, adults never leave their mothers; everybody travels together, and apparently each pod has its own language—a well-known communicative prowess that may relate to its unusually well-developed operculum.

There may come a time when we cease to regard animals as inferior, preliminary iterations of the human—with the human thought of as the pinnacle of evolution so far—and instead regard all forms of life as fugue-like elaborations of a single musical theme.

Animals are routinely superhuman in one way or another. They outstrip us in this or that perceptual or physical ability, and we think nothing of it. It is only our kind of superiority (in the use of tools, basically) that we select as the marker of “real” superiority. A human being with an elephant’s hippocampus would end up like Funes the Memorious in the story by Borges; a human being with a dog’s olfactory bulb would become a Vermeer of scent, but his art would be lost on the rest of us, with our visually dominated brains. The poetry of the orcas is yet to be translated; I suspect that the whale sagas will have much more interesting things in them than the tablets and inscriptions of Sumer and Akkad.

If science should ever persuade people of this biological unity, it would be of far greater benefit to the species than penicillin or cardiopulmonary bypass; of far greater benefit to the planet than the piecemeal successes of environmental activism. We will have arrived, by study and reasoning, at the intuitive, mystical insights of poets. We will finally live and believe as Whitman did:

I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars,

And the pismire is equally perfect, and a grain of sand, and the egg of the wren,

And the tree-toad is a chef-d’œuvre for the highest,

And the running blackberry would adorn the parlors of heaven,

And the narrowest hinge in my hand puts to scorn all machinery,

And the cow crunching with depress’d head surpasses any statue,

And a mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels.