|Photo credit: Anders Gade|
James Burkett is a 2014 recipient of the Emory Center for Ethics Neuroethics Travel Award. He is a graduate student in Emory's Neuroscience program, conducting research on social attachment and empathy in Dr. Larry Young's lab.
This October 5th thru the 8th I had the pleasure of attending the Federation of European Neuroscience Societies’ (FENS) bi-annual Brain Conference, held in Copenhagen, Denmark. FENS represents the neuroscience societies of 42 different societies in 32 countries, and is the primary organization for neuroscience in Europe. The conference, titled “The Social Brain,” focused on how the brain produces and is affected by social behaviors in humans and in animals. Chaired by eminent scientists Sarah-Jayne Blakemore (Director of the University College London’s Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience), Frans de Waal (world-famous primatologist at Emory University), and Giacomo Rizzolatti (discoverer of mirror neurons at University of Parma, Italy), the conference brought together a wide array of human and animal researchers at the top of their fields. Throughout the conference, this bipolar grouping was frequently brought to the same question: what is it that makes humans different from animals? What is uniquely human? As with a sculpture, this conference seemed to answer this question by chipping away at the monolith of things commonly thought of as unique to the human species.
For a long time, humans were thought to be unique for their tool use [1,2]. However, many surprising examples of tool use have now been seen in animals. Chimpanzees are now known to fashion weapons for use in hunting, as well as using tools for nut cracking and termite retrieval; and will sometimes be seen carrying favorite tools for great distances . Even this behavior is not unique to apes, however: Caledonian crows also craft and use tools for grub retrieval, and even have local tool-making traditions they pass on to the next generation . There are now many internet videos showing crows solving extremely complex tasks with available tools.
Several speakers showed that the human species is not unique in its ability to cooperate and to understand cooperative relationships [1,3,4]. Chimpanzees, for instance, are perfectly capable of learning cooperative tasks without training, and even spontaneously develop individual styles, preferred partners, reputations, and feedback between partners on their choices . They may do this through the use of specialized “mirror neurons,” which are present in motor planning and emotional areas of the brain and fire both when an action or emotion is being experienced, and when it is being observed in others [3,4]. These mirror neurons were first discovered in Rhesus macaques, but have since been found in humans and chimpanzees. Elephants readily learn cooperative tasks as well, even waiting for their partner to arrive when a task is presented that cannot successfully be performed alone . Even more distant from humans was a striking example of inter-species cooperative hunting between groupers and moray eels, where groupers show signs of shared intentionality and referential gesturing in order to get moray eels to help them catch fish . Tiny 5 gram cleaner wrasses, which have more than 2,000 inter-species social interactions a day while cleaning parasites off of other fish, show signs of cooperative strategies, individual recognition, social prestige, audience effects, tactical deception and reconciliation.