We’ve known for a long time that whales and dolphins are intelligent and socially complex animals with large brains that are organized differently from our own.
And we’ve known that the neocortex of a whale or dolphin brain has more folds than ours. All those folds mean that the surface area is greater and therefore may have more units to process information.
But recently, when we used a special imaging technique to study the brain of a dolphin (who had died naturally), we were astonished by what we learned.
Above: Beluga brain (left) and human brain. A beluga brain is just under twice the size of a human one and has more folds in its neocortex (surface area), indicating that the part of their brain that’s involved in problem solving and thinking is highly elaborated.
While we humans and most other animals have a single pathway from the inner ear up to the first “stopover” for auditory information coming into the brain, it turns out that dolphins have two! (And orcas, although we commonly refer to them as whales, are the largest species of dolphin.)
This could mean that they process echolocation echoes in one region of the brain and whistles and other sounds in another. But we’re still trying to understand how these two kinds of sound information come together.
Another research team has found that the part of the brain in orcas that’s involved in problem-solving and social- and self-awareness is proportionally larger than in humans. This could suggest they have a more complex sense of self than we do – so they may experience life both as an individual and as a member of their pod. And this kind of mental life might require a lot more processing of information than is the case with humans.
So, are we humans the most intelligent species on the planet? Clearly, evolution has found a way to create more than one kind of complex intelligence.
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