There’s no surer way to set the Internet against itself than to stoke the flames of the cat-dog debate. Sigh. Well, OK, that’s not true, but it’s still a big deal! Cat people and dog people are always looking for ways to bring the other side down a notch, and boy did one side get an early holiday gift this week!
Associate Professor of Psychology and Biological Sciences Suzana Herculano-Houzel of Vanderbilt worked with a group of researchers from across the globe to perform a huge study on the brains of the animal kingdom, and in so doing, made a discovery that is rocking the domesticated dog/cat debate. The study also included information about bears, raccoons, ferrets, and other furry friends, but let’s not get distracted from the matter at hand.
Dog people, pop the champagne. The study dug a little deeper into those animal brains — not content to know their relative sizes, the researchers looked into how many neurons are found in each animal’s brain. Herculano-Houzel took a specific interest in counting neurons using a new method designed for this study, saying “I believe the absolute number of neurons an animal has, especially in the cerebral cortex, determines the richness of their internal mental state and their ability to predict what is about to happen in their environment based on past experience.”
In the battle of dogs and cats, it’s dogs by a mile. The study found dogs have around 530 million neurons in the cerebral cortex of the brain, compared to only 250 million in cats. Dogs ended up having one of the highest numbers of neurons in the study, and it does have to be noted that just by eyeballing it, it sure doesn’t look like the dog brain is twice as big as the cat brain, either. It’s just a straight up L for cat people.
As eminently reasonable as that would have been, no. The researchers wanted to test a hypothesis they had that predators would have more neurons, and thus more mental capacity, then the herbivores they stalk for food. Makes sense, right? The ones doing the eating should be smarter than the ones they catch!
Turns out, the study showed the opposite. The carnivores had about the same ratio of neurons to brain size as the herbivores did. The researchers figure this is because evolution has forced predators to get smarter to catch food as much as it’s forced the prey to get smarter to stay alive. In fact, they even found that the largest carnivores, like bears, have lower ratios! The simplified explanation? Bears are super big and strong, and it takes a lot of energy to be super big and strong — energy that is not well spent having thoughts.
But, if we can take dogs off the pedestal for just a second, the big winner of the study is an animal that puts its super brain to use by digging through trash! The raccoon ended up having as many neurons as dogs, despite having smaller brains that are the size of cats’. To be fair, in recent years they have had to learn what dumpsters and car headlights look like, something domesticated cats and dogs don’t have to worry about quite as much. Then again, maybe that’s the wrong way to think about it — despite suspecting that wild animals would be brainier than their pampered brethren, the study found no real difference between the two.
But, the real winners? Humans. In a write-up for Vanderbilt, those neuron numbers for the animals got put in perspective by how many humans have — about 16 billion! You can use those neurons to think about your superiority the next time your dog — or cat! — emotionally manipulates you into cuddle time.