In its referential ability the human brain, we now know, is different in degree, not kind, from other animal brains.
Chimpanzees, but also other primates, appear to infer others’ mental state, a requirement for showing deceitful behavior. Even birds seem to have knowledge of other individuals’ mental state, as magpies will overtly cache food in the presence of onlookers and then retrieve and move it to a secret location as soon as the onlookers are gone. Chimpanzees and gorillas, elephants, dolphins, and also magpies appear to recognize themselves in the mirror, using it to inspect a visible mark placed on their heads.
These are fundamental discoveries that attest to the cognitive capacities of nonhuman species—but such one-of-a-kind observations do not serve the types of cross-species comparisons we need to make if we are to find out what it is about the brain that allows some species to achieve cognitive feats that are outside the reach of others.
So what simple but profound technological innovation might account for the human brain's ability to build upon this understanding, its ability "to ponder its own constitution," AND all the technological innovations that have followed in the course of human history?
The surprising answer might be cooking, says Brazilian neuroscientiest Suzana Herculano-Houzel:
As it turns out, there is a simple explanation for how the human brain, and it alone, can be at the same time similar to others in its evolutionary constraints, and yet so different to the point of endowing us with the ability to ponder our own material and metaphysical origins. First, we are primates, and this bestows upon humans the advantage of a large number of neurons packed into a small cerebral cortex. And second, thanks to a technological innovation introduced by our ancestors, we escaped the energetic constraint that limits all other animals to the smaller number of cortical neurons that can be afforded by a raw diet in the wild....
And what do we do that absolutely no other animal does, and which I believe allowed us to amass that remarkable number of neurons in the first place? We cook our food.
Read The Paradox of the Elephant Brain at Nautilus. Have a great weekend!