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Reptile aliens and reptile brains

13 Jun

I had been vaguely aware of a conspiracy theory positing reptile aliens planning to take over the earth:

“Reptilians are a very dangerous alien species that are bent on the domination of Earth. They are very intelligent, known as evil, have telekinetic powers and have a warlike mentality that has driven them to secretly incorporate themselves into our society for their cause. Some conspiracy theories suspect that many important leaders are actually Reptilians acting as humans in order to help them with their agenda (From as George W. Bush to members of the British royal family).”

What I didn’t realize is that some of these claims are based on the popular notion of the reptile brain.  Now, I am interested, for many years I have  noted with astonishment how the theory of the reptile brain, has persisted in popular accounts of brain science, decades after it has been abandoned by scientists.

Put simply, the theory that humans harbor a primitive reptilian brain is based on fundamental misunderstandings of evolution and comparative anatomy. Popular books that continue to promote this idea are miseducating the public.

I didn’t really need to know about this connection to disbelieve in the reptilian conspiracy, but it is fascinating to see this link between pseudoscience and discredited science.



Ravens are just as smart as chimps

8 Jun

A paper in Royal Society Open Science:

“Given birds’ small brain size—in absolute terms—yet flexible behaviour, their motor self-regulation calls for closer study. Corvids exhibit some of the largest relative avian brain sizes—although small in absolute measure—as well as the most flexible cognition in the animal kingdom. We therefore tested ravens, New Caledonian crows and jackdaws in the so-called cylinder task. We found performance indistinguishable from that of great apes despite the much smaller brains. We found both absolute and relative brain volume to be a reliable predictor of performance within Aves. The complex cognition of corvids is often likened to that of great apes; our results show further that they share similar fundamental cognitive mechanisms.”

Here is the press release:

“A study led by researchers at Lund University in Sweden shows that ravens are as clever as chimpanzees, despite having much smaller brains, indicating that rather than the size of the brain, the neuronal density and the structure of the birds’ brains play an important role in terms of their intelligence.”



Fish Intelligence

18 May

The best popular book on animal intelligence is Second Nature: The Inner Lives of Animals by Jonathan Balcombe. This Sunday’s New York Times has an excellent piece by Balcombe about the intelligence of fish:

“As a biologist who specializes in animal behavior and emotions, I’ve spent the past four years exploring the science on the inner lives of fishes. What I’ve uncovered indicates that we grossly underestimate these fabulously diverse marine vertebrates. The accumulating evidence leads to an inescapable conclusion: Fishes think and feel.”


Operant Conditioning Works

5 May

Einstein the bird

27 Apr


More details here.

Parrots in the dock

11 Apr

Parrots can talk and, sometimes, they are witnesses to crimes. Here is an article on this fascinating topic. And here is another one.

“in South Carolina in 2010, a woman went to jail for abusing and neglecting her elderly mother. When local police entered the house they found a parrot that repeated “Help me, help me” — then laughed. They believed the parrot was mimicking the mother’s pleas, then the daughter’s laughter. Sometimes the birds can be roped into criminal activity themselves. In September of 2010, in the Colombian city of Barranquilla, a parrot named Lorenzo was taught by his owners — members of the Cali drug cartel — to say “RUN, RUN” when he spotted the police. Lorenzo was guarding a load of guns and marijuana. (Don’t worry about Lorenzo — he wasn’t prosecuted.)”


“A general intelligence factor in dogs”

15 Feb

A paper published in the journal Intelligence: “A general intelligence factor in dogs.

Here is the abstract:

“Hundreds of studies have shown that, in people, cognitive abilities overlap yielding an underlying ‘g’ factor, which explains much of the variance. We assessed individual differences in cognitive abilities in 68 border collies to determine the structure of intelligence in dogs. We administered four configurations of a detour test and repeated trials of two choice tasks (point-following and quantity-discrimination). We used confirmatory factor analysis to test alternative models explaining test performance. The best-fitting model was a hierarchical model with three lower-order factors for the detour time, choice time, and choice score and a higher order factor; these accounted jointly for 68% of the variance in task scores. The higher order factor alone accounted for 17% of the variance. Dogs that quickly completed the detour tasks also tended to score highly on the choice tasks; this could be explained by a general intelligence factor. Learning about g in non human species is an essential component of developing a complete theory of g; this is feasible because testing cognitive abilities in other species does not depend on ecologically relevant tests. Discovering the place of g among fitness-bearing traits in other species will constitute a major advance in understanding the evolution of intelligence.”




If a bird can be polyglot, why not you?

21 Dec

From The Wall Street Journal, the story of a multi-lingual parrot.

Animal-assisted therapy for patients with dementia

14 Dec

A study published in The American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry found that animal assisted therapy slowed the progression of dementia:

To investigate the efficacy of animal-assisted therapy (AAT) on symptoms of agitation/aggression and depression in nursing home residents with dementia in a randomized controlled trial. Previous studies have indicated that AAT has beneficial effects on neuropsychiatric symptoms in various psychiatric disorders but few studies have investigated the efficacy of AAT in patients suffering from dementia.

Of 65 nursing home residents with dementia (mean [standard deviation] age: 81.8 [9.2] years; mean Mini–Mental State Examination score: 7.1 [0.7]), 27 matched pairs (N = 54) were randomly assigned to either treatment as usual or treatment as usual combined with AAT, administered over 10 weekly sessions. Blinded raters assessed cognitive impairment with the Mini–Mental State Examination, presence of agitation/aggression with the Cohen-Mansfield Agitation Inventory, and depression with the Dementia Mood Assessment Scale at baseline and during a period of 4 weeks after AAT intervention.

In the control group, symptoms of agitation/aggression and depression significantly increased over 10 weeks; in the intervention group, patients receiving combined treatment displayed constant frequency and severity of symptoms of agitation/aggression (F1,48 = 6.43; p <0.05) and depression (F1,48 = 26.54; p <0.001). Symptom amelioration did not occur in either group.

AAT is a promising option for the treatment of agitation/aggression and depression in patients with dementia. Our results suggest that AAT may delay progression of neuropsychiatric symptoms in demented nursing home residents. Further research is needed to determine its long-time effects.”

Rat altruism

27 Nov
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