Monday, October 19, 2009

Whale story

Notes from Big Sur,
October 14, 2007

I’m sitting in the hot springs, having another late night discussion with Gregg, a psychiatrist from Ann Arbor (U of M). He’s doing research for a book he’s writing that claims that we humans are not the most intelligent species on earth. At best, we come in a distant third .. whales and dolphins are much smarter. In fact, he says jokingly, whales evolved wireless Internet millions of years before Al Gore .. they communicate with each other by sending ‘sonar messages’ that can be heard by other whales in any ocean on the planet. Back at the cabin, he shows me 8 by 10 glossy photos of a whale’s brain. Pretty impressive I say (once he explains what I’m looking at). They have a much larger, and more convoluted, cerebral cortex than we do. I ask him if that’s because they have much more body area to control. He says no, very little of it is ‘motor cortex’ .. those functions were distributed to areas outside the whale’s brain a long long time ago. Now humans, he believes, operate from a much lower part of the brain .. what’s known as the ‘reptilian brain’ .. and that’s what drives our’ rational brain’ .. not the other way around .. as we would like to think. He goes on to tell me that these lower brain areas assign ‘addresses’ that link ‘powerful emotions’ to information entering memory. That’s why we remember what other people tell us much better than what we read in books. I sit fascinated by all of this. Afterwards, he gives me a book called ‘Up from Dragons’ by Dorion Sagan, the son of the late Carl Sagan. I remember reading ‘Dragons of Eden’ in college and was fascinated then too. Gregg has been one of the most interesting parts of this trip. I tell him so the next morning, and we hug before he disappears down highway one. I must remember to send him a copy of “Defending the Cavewoman” when I get home.

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