My newest radio piece for VOA News! Listen in here:

I would like to thank VOA reporter Steve Baragona for letting me steal the phrase “thieving lemurs.”

More information can be found in the accompanying web write-up for this story.

Way more information can be found in the publicly accessible PLOS ONE paper.

If you’re interested in animal thinking, that paper is worth a read. It touches on some really compelling debates within the field.

In some ways this story was really challenging to write, because animal cognition is my field. I had to leave out a lot of stuff that really fascinates me. For example, you may be wondering if researchers have come up with better ways to guess at intelligence by looking at physical aspects of the brain; well, they’re definitely trying. The findings with these lemurs corroborate something we’ve already been pretty sure of, which is that a bigger brain isn’t necessarily smarter or better at thinking. A sperm whale’s brain is bigger than your brain, and while the whale’s brain is almost certainly better at understanding echolocation, it is definitely not better than your brain at interpreting Shakespeare.

So what is a good physical metric of intelligence? Is there anything we can measure in the brains of animals that will tell us how smart they are? The jury is still out on this. There’s been some buzz about a new technique that lets scientists count the number of neurons in brain tissue accurately. Since neurons are the brain machinery that are doing the actual work of cognition—passing electrical signals around—more neurons might mean a faster or more nimble brain, and we can actually count neurons now. But nothing in science is simple and straightforward, and intelligence is complicated. Neuron counts may be a more nuanced measurement of cognitive strength, but there will be ways in which it is flawed.

Lemurs are better with John Cleese:

Happy Friday!


4 thoughts on “ Scientists teach lemurs to steal food from undergrads, gain new understanding of the nature of intelligence on Earth ”

  1. So I always thought it was ratio of brain size to body size that was the best predictor of intelligence across species. At least, that’s what Carl Sagan said. Are you dissing Carl Sagan!?!

    1. Fuck Carl! He’s dead!

      You probably already know this because you’re a genius or something: ratio of brain to body size is good! Better than straight-up brain size at least. But why would a bigger brain be better at all? Presumably because we assume that a bigger brain means more neurons. All measurements of brain size in any fashion are just attempts to extrapolate information about neurons since they’re what actually matters for processing power. But brain tissue can have different neuron density so size doesn’t tell us much. Also, a bigger brain might have more neurons, but it’ll also be harder for all of them to be connected efficiently. So actually a relatively small brain that’s densely packed with neurons might be the best thing for cognitive processing because it optimizes connectivity (human brains are great at this).

      Ergo, better to just skip all the extrapolation and just count neurons.

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