Whales Are Much Smarter Than Humans

Whales Are Much Smarter Than Humans

A transcript of the above talk

Hi! I'm Tim Tyler - and this is a video about how smart whales are - in comparison with humans.

Humans often take pride in their large brains.

However, the human brain is relatively small in comparison to the brains of elephants, dolphins and whales.

The largest brains known belong to female sperm whales - which are fully six times more massive than the human brain.

Sperm whales look like this:

To give an indication of the size of their brains, here is a photograph of John Lilly, next to a full-size model of the brain of a sperm whale:

Brain surface has valuable properties - and whale brains have more convoluted surfaces - and a much larger surface area - than human brains.

The number of neurons in the brain of a sperm whale has not yet been measured - but based on calculations that extrapolate from the brains of smaller whales, their neocortex is expected to have about 2.5 times as many neurons as are found in humans.

A more interesting measure is the number of glial cells in the neocortex - this is estimated to be 9 times as many as in the human brain.

Why so many glial cells? Whale brains have proportionally more white matter than human brains, a sign of their sophistication. It seems likely that the glial cells are there to support all the extra metabolic activity.

Synapse numbers have not been measured directly - which is unfortunate - since this figure would probably provide the best single estimate of processing capability in whale brains.

Synapse numbers are known in Dolphins - and a crude extrapolation to the Sperm whale suggests that they will have over three times as many synapses as humans.

What about body size? It was once thought that the ratio of brain-size to body size - the "Encephalization Quotient" - was more significant. However, more recent findings cast doubt on this idea - suggesting that absolute brain size is just about the single most important factor in predicting cognitive ability from brain attributes.

So, we should be impressed at the enormous brains of Sperm whales.

Whales have complex social lives, and exhibit great behavioural complexity. Carl Sagan had this to say about them:

[Carl Sagan footage]

The large whale brain is not terribly surprising once you consider that it has been evolving in water for over fifty million years.

Unlike the human brain, whale brains do not have to fit through a pelvis that also has to play an important structural role in walking. Also, rather than being balanced on the top of a human spine, the whale brain is supported and stabilised from all directions by water.

As a result of all this, some whales have very large brains - and they are probably much smarter than we are.



  1. Cetaceans Have Complex Brains for Complex Cognition

  2. Overall Brain Size, and Not Encephalization Quotient, Best Predicts Cognitive Ability across Non-Human Primates

  3. Are Whales Smarter Than We Are?

  4. Total neocortical cell number in the mysticete brain

  5. Brain to body mass ratio

  6. Thinking about Brain Size...

  7. Humpback whales have brain cells also found in humans

  8. Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals By William F. Perrin, Bernd Wursig, J. G. M. Thewissen

Tim Tyler | Contact | http://alife.co.uk/