The human brain is unique: Our remarkable cognitive capacity has allowed us to invent the wheel, build the pyramids and land on the moon. In fact, scientists sometimes refer to the human brain as the “crowning achievement of evolution.”
But what, exactly, makes our brains so special? Some leading arguments have been that our brains have more neurons and expend more energy than would be expected for our size, and that our cerebral cortex, which is responsible for higher cognition, is disproportionately large—accounting for over 80 percent of our total brain mass.
Suzana Herculano-Houzel, a neuroscientist at the Institute of Biomedical Science in Rio de Janeiro, debunked these well-established beliefs in recent years when she discovered a novel way of counting neurons—dissolving brains into a homogenous mixture, or “brain soup.” Using this technique she found the number of neurons relative to brain size to be consistent with other primates, and that the cerebral cortex, the region responsible for higher cognition, only holds around 20 percent of all our brain’s neurons, a similar proportion found in other mammals. In light of these findings, she argues that the human brain is actually just a linearly scaled-up primate brain that grew in size as we started to consume more calories, thanks to the advent of cooked food.
Other researchers have found that traits once believed to belong solely to humans also exist in other members of the animal kingdom. Monkeys have a sense of fairness. Chimps engage in war. Rats show altruism and exhibit empathy. In a study published last week in Nature Communications, neuroscientist Christopher Petkov and his group at Newcastle University found that macaques and humans share brain areas responsible for processing the basic structures of language. [Scientific American is part of Nature Publishing Group.]