#170: Human vs. Animal Brains

March 03, 2017

Do rats have a “mind” the way humans do?  Can chimps understand the mental states of others?

Dr. Aaron Blaisdell, Professor at UCLA, joins Jesse in episode 170 to talk about animal cognition.

Animals and the Mind

Dr. Blaisdell began his career working with chimpanzees.  Two fun facts:  they love being tickled and will use mirrors to inspect their teeth.

Eventually, he moved on to studying the sophistication of rat cognition.  Turns out that rats do have a “mind,” similar to humans in certain ways.

For example, rats can understand that if, in the past, one event always occurred in the presence of a second event, when the first event occurs, the second event is likely to occur too.  Think of the way that the sound of thunder generally accompanies lightening.

What Makes Human Brains Special?

Humans don’t have the biggest brain of any animal, and we don’t have the most neurons, but we do have more specialized neurons and a larger frontal cortex.

The frontal cortex is responsible for flexible reasoning, long-term planning, and self-control, among other virtues.  Not only is our frontal cortex proportionally larger, but it’s also more differentiated — it has more submodules than other animals.

In fact, as humans evolved and our brains grew, the majority of our brain’s growth occurred in the frontal cortex.  We also grew more connections between our cortex and our spinal cord, particularly the areas controlling our hands, lips and throats, which perhaps explains our ability with spoken language and dexterity.

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