Dolphins have long been admired for their intelligence, but scientists are just starting to figure out their incredibly complex brains and behavior.
The wise and social creatures share a lot in common with humans. In many ways they behave just like humans – they form social groups and cliques, and they can be taught to recognize “alphabets” of symbols. However, it seems they may exceed us in their interconnectedness with each other.
A new book by Susan Casey titled Voices in the Ocean, discusses how this high level of intelligence could stem from the mammals having what’s known as a collective consciousness, with the author claiming they “may know something that we don’t.”
Dolphins also have the extraordinary ability to somehow sense when swimmers have become stranded and will go to their rescue, even if they are miles away.
Over the past 50 million years the brains of dolphins have evolved and expanded dramatically in size. At the same time, their bodies have shrunk, their teeth have become smaller and they have developed high-frequency hearing. The limbic system in a dolphin’s brain is responsible for the emotions in the same way as it is in human brains. While most vertebrates evolved this region early and kept it pretty much intact, the limbic system in the brains of dolphins developed further.
Since odors are indistinguishable underwater, the hippocampus of dolphins (a region linked to their olfactory sense) diminished in size, Casey explained. “Meanwhile, their paralimbic area grew huge, so densely jammed with neurons that it blurped out an extra lobe,” she said.
The unique evolution of the dolphin brain suggests that they are doing something very sophisticated or complex while they’re processing emotions. Their brains may even have adapted for a type of unprecedented connectivity.
Casey’s book explains, “In fact, dolphins are so tightly bound to their pods that they may be operating with a degree of interconnectedness far deeper than our own. There’s a jubilee of tissue packed into this area, an exuberance of grey matter that scientists believe relates to all things feeling – and no other mammal has anything quite like it.”
During an interview with neuroscientist Lori Marino, Casey asked whether the animals’ nature was the reason why dolphins have such large brains. Marino said this unique evolution suggests the animals are “doing something very sophisticated or complex while they’re processing emotions” and their brains may have adapted for a type of connectivity unprecedented in the animals kingdom. Marino calls this a “collective soul.” “When you look at their brain you can definitely see how this could be an animal that takes sociality to another level,” Marino told Casey.
She used the example that dolphins and whales strand en masse when only one or two individuals are sick and when they’re herded together they huddle in a group rather than jumping nets. “There is some sort of cohesiveness in them that I don’t think we get quite yet, but it accounts for a lot of the behavior that seems strange to us,” she continued. “I think a lot of it comes down to emotional attachment. And I think there is a very strong sense in them that if something happens to the group, it happens to you.” Marino continued, “In fact, dolphins are so tightly bound to their pods that they may be operating with a degree of interconnectedness far deeper than our own.”