Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Stop Calling...

...stupid things "bird brained."

Certain birds have demonstrated that they are quite intelligent. I've had conversations with parrots - simple ones, but enough to show that the bird knew what it was saying. And I've talked before about the fact that many crows and relatives show abstract intelligence at least equal to the great apes.

Now scientists have studied the brains of two dozen bird species in an attempt to discover why - to be more precise, how a macaw with a brain the size of a walnut can show better cognitive abilities than a macaque with a brain the size of a lemon.

Turns out, birds have something interesting going on in their forebrains - their equivalent to our cerebral cortex. A higher density of neurons.

This is probably part of adaptation to flight. You have to be light to fly. A heavy brain is a problem - so you need a light brain that's more efficient. Exactly what birds have evolved. They have more, shorter neurons, and that allows them to reach the same cognitive capacity as primates.

...and possibly as humans.

The significance of this is that there's more than one way to design a complicated brain, and that we have to rethink what we "know" about brain size and even brain size to body size ratio.

Another significance is that the best bird brains are found in songbirds and parrots (crows and their relatives are, yes, songbirds) - the birds with the most complicated vocalizations. This might teach us more about the relationship between language and intelligence, and how the two might feed into and develop each other. Did intelligence come first or did complicated language actually come before intelligence? (Or was it one way in mammals and a different way in birds). Songbirds often have complicated songs, but not always the kind of complex behavior we see in crows. Who...don't have complicated songs, but do have at least a basic language.

Next time somebody calls you "bird brained" - thank them for the compliment.

(I leave for Origins Game Expo tomorrow and will likely not have time to post again until Tuesday. Don't burn anything down without me).