Human and animal brains – what’s the difference?

By Ann Griswold • Published: December 3rd, 2008
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

The heads of gorillas, elephants and other large mammals are so much larger than our own that it’s amazing how our relatively small human brains can even compete! But while animals excel at certain behaviors, humans remain the only species capable of composing music, solving quadratic equations and communicating in a variety of complex languages.

Scientists have long wondered what makes the human brain different. Human and chimpanzee brains are similar in structure, suggesting that primates are capable of more than we give them credit for. But recent studies reveal that human brains are like computer systems with more powerful processors. The outer layer of the human brain, known as the cerebral cortex, contains a higher number of neurons… nerve cells that transmit electrical signals to the rest of the body. We also have more insulation around our nerves, helping the electrical signals travel faster. And our bodies are relatively small for a mammal, so the signals don’t have far to travel.

That’s not to say that animals aren’t smart. Various studies have found that pigeons can look at paintings and distinguish between male and female faces. Apes make and use complex tools, green herons attract fish by throwing objects into the water, and injured dolphins nurse each other back to health. But scientists are still trying to understand why humans… at least most of us… can do all that and more, while eating with one hand and gesturing wildly with the other.