Monday, February 01, 2021

Bird Brains

Yesterday, a pair of crows drove our dog crazy by play fighting outside our living room window. At first I thought it was an actual fight, and maybe it was (I have no idea what was in their hearts) but after awhile it was hard to see it as anything other than a bit of rough housing, especially when they finished by flying off together, wingtip to wingtip to perch side-by-side on a tree branch where they proceeded to casually preen their feathers.

Crows, they tell us, are one of the animal kingdom's most intelligent creatures, certainly at the top of the heap when it comes to birds. They belong to a family of birds called corvids that includes ravens, rooks, and jays. Scientists use things like their ability to solve problems, make tools, and their ability to anticipate future events as evidence of this intelligence. Crows even seem to possess a "theory of mind," which is to say they consider other individuals' states of mind. They actually make customized tools. They  understand causality, can reason, count up to five and it's said they remember individual human faces, so if you're mean to a crow, they'll know to avoid or dive bomb you when next you meet. They're so smart they outperform apes in some tests of intelligence. This has lead some scientists to assert that crows are second only to humans.

These are all criteria we use to determine human intelligence as well, so we're probably prejudiced when it comes to assessing this trait in other species. Naturally, we more highly value evidence of the kind of intelligence humans possess while dismissing, say, a canine's olfactory intelligence as less significant. Tool use, for instance, may well be a marker for this thing we call intelligence, but what if it isn't? 

Scientists in Australia have recently found that tool making does not correlated to larger brains in the avian world, brain size being another characteristic that we associate with high intelligence. Instead, they've determined that the best predictor of larger brains in birds is their tendency to play. The more a bird plays, and the more sophisticated their play, the larger their brains tend to be. Birds that don't play have relatively small brains. Birds that engage in solo play have slightly larger brains. Those that play with objects like sticks have even larger brains, but the largest bird brains of all are those found in those who play with one another.

Cause or effect? I have no idea. All this really tells us is that birds who play together have the biggest brains of all. It could be that those with bigger brains tend to play or it could be that playing causes brains to get big. We also don't know if this can be applied to humans, although we do know that humans have the highest brain-to-body weight ratio in the animal kingdom and we likewise tend to believe that we wear the crown of intelligence. We also, as a species, have a longer period of "childhood" than any other species, and childhood, in most animals, is associated with play. At the very least we can say that brain size and play are closely related, yet we tend, as a society, to dismiss play as "useless." Our schools, in particular, do this as we increasingly minimize recess while increasing instructional time. Indeed, much of what teachers are expected to do in the early years is suppress play (which is pretty much the entirety of "classroom management"), despite the evidence that growing brains either need play or need to play. Either way we are systematically depriving our children's brains.

At the end of the day, I'm skeptical of anyone who claims to understand intelligence, even as it's an endlessly fascinating subject of speculation. More often than not, they are using a highly selective collection of data points, ones that are easy to measure, while disregarding anything inconvenient, and call it "intelligence." That's what I.Q. tests do, for instance. Brain size is one of those things that are easy to measure and, of course, no matter how intelligent a crow is, its brain is the size of a walnut, while a dog's is the size of a tangerine . . . And what of other kinds of intelligence?

Maybe intelligence is the wrong prism through which to look at these things. Whether or not play has anything to do with intelligence is a moot point from where I sit (although it looks like it definitely could be). The link between the lack of childhood play and its negative impact on emotional development is a strong one. A lack of play in humans leads to an increased propensity toward anxiety, depression, and problems of attention and self control. Even if all-work-no-play models of schooling do somehow increase intelligence, at what cost? Most of us would chose to be less intelligent and mentally healthy over brilliant and miserable any day. I'm far more concerned with mentally healthy children than intelligent ones, but if this research on bird brains tells us what it seems to be telling us, then there is really only one choice: let the children play.


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