Anyone who has ever looked into the eyes of a pet and wondered what it’s thinking might find a few clues in a new documentary debuting this week on PBS’ “NOVA.”
“Inside Animal Minds,” a three-part program airing over three Wednesdays, April 9, 16 and 23 (check local listings), follows researchers as they push animal brains to their limits to uncover their similarities to and differences from the human brain.
“It’s really a basic question in biology and animal studies, and it’s also something that normal people wonder about because [animals] can’t talk,” producer Julia Cort tells Zap2it. “They can’t tell us directly what’s going on in their minds. So we’re following scientists all over the world who are devising experiments to test animals and try to find out what they know and how they make decisions and how they solve problems in all these different kinds of situations.”
Some of the findings will surprise and even astound, such as in Part 1, “Bird Genius,” in which crows execute eight separate steps to open a latch to get to a piece of food, thus proving themselves quite adept at problem solving, more so even than dogs.
This notion may be somewhat disquieting to dog owners. But there is a thing known as EQ — encephalization quotient — which posits that brain size relative to body size, not overall brain size, determines intelligence. Creatures that rank high on this list include humans, chimpanzees and yes, crows.
“A dog basically has an average-size brain for the size of its body,” Cort says, “but a crow’s brain, in relative terms, it turns out is about equal to a chimpanzee’s … They actually both use tools, they’re both social creatures, they live in complicated and challenging environments, they have to find different kinds of food at different times of year. And these are things that are giving us hints into the development of what could be shaping an animal’s intelligence and could even enlighten us about how our own brains evolved.”
Next week’s installment, “Dogs & Super Senses,” illustrates just how acute the canine sense of smell is, and Part 3, “Who’s the Smartest?” looks at animals such as dolphins, elephants and apes that live in complex social groups.