Human Intelligence, what makes humans unique?

Research into human intelligence has been at the forefront of scientific research for centuries, yet, we are still far from understanding the many mysteries behind the operations of our brain. Although we do not fully understand how our brains work, we have a basic understanding of the differences between our brains and those of other animals. 

Behaviourally, humans are thought to possess a self-awareness, or in other words metacognition, that other animals lack.  Structurally, this function of the brain primarily relies on operations of the prefrontal cortex (the area directly behind the forehead). Although metacognition partially arises from the prefrontal cortex’s connection to other areas of the brain, hence  a specific structure in the brain that leads to metacognition is very hard to identify. 

Artificial Intelligence (c) Seanbatty, CC0 Creative Commons

To make this process even more difficult no test has been created that can accurately identify metacognitive abilities inside other species.  Previously, it was believed that the intelligence of an animal was correlated simply with the density of the brain. This has been recently debunked however as in 2015, Suzana Herculano-Houzel, showed that humans ratio of neurons to brain size did not significantly differ from that of other primates.

Furthermore, many traits previously thought to only belong to humans have also been found in other animals. For example, according to Scientific American, scientists have shown that “Monkeys have a sense of fairness. Chimps engage in war. Rats show altruism and exhibit empathy.”

Nerve Cell (c) ColiN00B, CC0 Creative Commons

As we have been unable to show concrete structural differences between ourselves and other animals that may lead to increased cognition. Researchers have turned to look for genetic differences between humans and other primates. Recent studies have found unique genetic signatures in humans across six separate specimens, that affect 132 regions of our brain.  These studies have narrowed down much of the difference in brain function to glial cells, support cells for the brain with a variety of functions. They found that there were far more differences among species in glial cells than neurons.

Such recent breakthroughs show that with advances in technology we are getting closer to uncovering the numerous secrets behind our intelligence. Such science has also received a lot of focus recently as it is pivotal to the creation of AI. A major breakthrough in the understanding of our brain could lead  to the largest advancement in technology since the creation of the internet, giving governments and people alike a strong incentive to work towards such understanding.

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