What if I told you that, neuronally speaking, the human brain was not particularly special? That, despite its size in comparison to our bodies, we are not particularly special in comparison to other primates or mammals. The encephalization quotient supposedly shows how “unique” and “special” humans are in terms of brain size compared to body size. We have a brain that’s seven times bigger than would be expected for our body size, and that’s what supposedly makes us unique compared to the rest of the animals kingdom.
Suzana Herculano-Houzel, the new Associate Professor of Psychology at Vanderbilt University (former Associate Professor at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro), is a neuroscientist who challenges these notions that humans are supposedly unique in our brain size when compared to other mammals and primates. She pioneered a technique of turning brains into soup with a machine called the isotropic fractionator, which turns it into a “soup of a known volume” that contain the free cell nuclei to be colored and counted under a microscope. Using this technique, Azevedo et al (2009) showed that “with regard to numbers of neuronal and nonneuronal cells, the human brain is an isometrically scaled-up primate brain.” Every cell in the soup contains one nucleus, so counting is easy. Using this technique, they discovered that using the brain scaling of rats, a brain of 100 billion neurons would weigh 45 kg and body mass would be 109 tons. While using the primate scaling, a brain of 100 billion neurons would weigh 1.45 kg and belong to a body weighing 74 kg, suspiciously what humans are…. The human brain is constructed with the same rules as other primate’s brains. We are no different.
This is in direct opposition to brain size fetishists, who champion the fact that the human brain is some so-called ‘pinnacle of evolution’, as if all of the events that preceded us was setting the stage for our eventual arrival.
Of course, speaking in terms of body size, humans have the largest brains. However, the amount of neurons a brain has seems to be correlated to how cognitively complex the organism is. Humans have the most neurons for their brain size, however, that is one of the only things that sets us apart from other mammals/primates.
Azevedo et al (2009) write:
Our notion that the human brain is a linearly scaled-up primate brain in its cellular composition is in clear opposition to the traditional view that the human brain is 7.0 times larger than expected for a mammal and 3.4 times larger than expected for an anthropoid primate of its body mass (Marino, 1998). However, such large encephalization is found only when body-brain allometric rules that apply to nonprimates are used, as stated above, or when great apes are included in the calculation of expected brain size for a primate of a given body size.
Humans aren’t special in terms of neuronal and nonneuronal cells, our brains are just scaled-up versions of primate brains. There is nothing ‘weird’ or ‘unique’ about our brains; our brains follow the same ‘laws’ as other primates. Great apes such as the orangutans and gorillas are the ones who have brains that are smaller than their bodies. Their bodies are much larger than expected for primates of their brain size. That is where the outlier exists; not us.
The reason for our higher cognition is the 16 or so billion neurons in our cerebral cortex. For instance, the astounding human brain size in relation to body size is often touted, however, elephant’s brains are bigger, and they also have more neurons than we do. What sets us apart from elephants is that our cerebral cortex has about three times the amount of neurons compared to the elephant whose cerebral cortex is two times larger. The density of the neurons in our cerebral cortex seems to be the cause of our unique intelligence in the animal kingdom. Herculano-Houzel writes in her book The Human Advantage: A New Understanding of How Our Brains Became Remarkable (2016: 102):
The superior cognitive abilities of the human brain over the elephant brain can simply—and only—be attributed to the remarkably large number of neurons in its cerebral cortex.
Moreover, the absolute expansion of the cerebral cortex and its relative increase over the rest of the brain have been particularly fast in primate evolution (Herculano-Houzel, 2016: 110). I will return to the cause for this later.
She also noticed that in all of the papers that she read about the brain that the constant number quoted for the amount of neurons in the human brain was 100 billion. She continuously searched for the original citation and couldn’t find it. It wasn’t until she used her isotropic fractionator to get the true amount of neurons in the human brain—86 billion, which coincided with another stereological estimate.
Human brains are normally thought of as the ‘pinnacle of evolution’. Some people believe that everything preceding us was just setting the stage for the eventual Dawn of Man. This couldn’t be further from the truth. She writes on page 112:
And at the pinnacle of evolution, supposedly, is the human cerebral cortex, with the largest relative size compared to the brain. That, however, is only to be expected, both because we are primates and because, among primates, we have the largest brain and cerebral cortex, not because we are special.
Moreover, what I hardly see discussed is the fact that the brain is the most metabolically expensive organ the body has. Our brain weighs in at 2 percent of our body weight, yet takes 500 kcal—or 25 percent of our daily energy needs—to power. Further, 500 kcals per day translates to 24 watts of power, slightly more than half the amount of energy it takes to power a 40 watt light bulb and just over one-third of the power it takes to power a 60-watt laptop. Our muscles, in comparison, generate over 3 times the amount of energy (75 watts) and even more in short bursts (think Type II muscle fibers). Amazingly, the amount of energy the brain uses stays constant at 24 watts. This is attributed to some parts of the brain being more active while some are less active. However, the redistribution of blood flow from the less active to more active parts of the brain explains how the brain can use a constant amount of energy and never go above its daily requirements (Herculano-Houzel, 2016: 174).
When thinking about the overall brain size of a species, the amount of caloric energy that organ needs daily has to be taken into account. For instance, as noted previously, the human brain needs 129 grams of glucose or 519 kcal to run per day. Consuming the amount of kcal we need to keep our brains running efficiently is easy in the modern-day world: one cup of sugar contains the amount of kcal needed to power the brain all day. There is a trade-off between body size and number of neurons. Thinking about this from a metabolic point of view, there are metabolic limitations on how big a brain can get in comparison to how many kcal the primate in question consumes.
In her Ted Talk (starting at 10 minutes in), she talks about how there is a trade-off between body and brain size. She says that a primate that eats 8 hours per day would have 53 billion neurons if it weighed 25 kg, 45 billion neurons if it weighed 50 kg, if it had 30 billion neurons it would weigh 75 kg, if it had 12 billion neurons it would weigh 100 kg and the amount of neurons would not be viable if it weighed 150 kg. Keep in mind that primates eat 8-9 hours per day—which seems to be the upper limit on the amount of time they can spend eating. So you can clearly see there is a trade-off between brain size and body size—the bigger the body gets for a primate, the brain gets smaller. And, obviously, we humans got around that—but how?
Neurons are extremely expensive from a caloric point of view. Using our brains in the previous comparison, for a brain with 86 billion neurons in a body weighing g 60-70 kg, we should have to eat for over 9 hours to attain the caloric energy needed to power our huge (in terms of neurons) brains. And, obviously, eating for over 9 hours per day just to power our neurons isn’t viable. So how did we get so many neurons if they are so dependent on adequate kcal to power? The thing is, the energy availability in a raw diet never would have powered brains as big as ours (Azevedo and Herculano-Houzel, 2012).
Let’s talk about what we know so far: as detailed above, our brains cost just as much energy as it should and we can’t eat for over 9 hours a day to attain the amount of kcal in order to power and sustain our huge brains, how did our brains get so big?
There is a ‘simple’ way of getting around these energy restraints: cooking. Cooking allowed us to ‘pre-digest’ food, so to speak, before we ingested it. PumpkinPerson always talks about the ‘radical behavioral change’ that occurred, well it occurred with the advent of cooking allowing us to extract nutrients quicker from our food to power our big brain with 86 billion neurons. Without one of the most important events in human history, everything you see around you today would not exist. The best evidence we have is that our ancestors starting with the australopithecines and going to habilis and erectus, was that there was a huge increase in brain size and the only thing that could possibly explain such an increase was the advent of cooking. Our ancestors 1.5 million years ago showed the first signs of cooking, which led to the increase in brain size in our species. Fire played a huge role in our evolution and it could be argued that, without fire, we wouldn’t be here today (or, at least with our current cognitive ability). Our ancestors who were alive around that time did have the capability to make tools, so the digestion process could have begun outside the body by grinding and mashing food before it was eaten.
In sum, the human brain is not special. It follows the same laws as all other primate brains. It has the amount of neurons that are expected for a brain its size in a primate. We can either take ‘brains’ or ‘brawn’, meaning our brains will get smaller as our bodies get bigger and vice versa (in primates anyway). The size of our brains is completely predicated on the amount of caloric energy we intake. Human evolution was driven by fire when our first ancestors started to use it to cook to pre-digest food before eating it. That’s what drove the evolution of our bigger brains which started around 1-1.5 million years ago, and without the ability to consume quality calories with the right amount of nutrients for brain growth, human evolution never would have occurred how it did—especially for the evolution of our brains. Moreover, without the rise of bipedalism, our hands would have never been free to make tools, to use fire and cook food to get our bigger brains because, as shown above, the amount of hours we would need to eat would not be feasible to sustain the brain that we have.
The human brain is just a linearly scaled-up primate brain (Herculano-Houzel, 2009) and has the amount of neurons that a brain our size that an organism of our size would be expected to have. What sets us apart is the amount of neurons that are crowded into our cerebral cortex—16 billion in total—which is responsible for our cognitive superiority over other species on earth. Our overall brain size is not responsible for our domination and conquest of earth, it was the amount of neurons in our cerebral cortex that allowed for our cognitive sophistication over other animals on earth. What sustained our big brains with energy-demanding neurons was the advent of fire and cooking, which allowed us to consume the amount of kcal needed in order to carry around such big brains. The real “Human Advantage” is cooking which led to bigger brains and more cognitive sophistication due to the amount of neurons in our cerebral cortex, not our overall brain size.