Sunday, December 19, 2010

Difference Between Humans and Animals, Part XV

In the second installment of this series, I embedded a lecture from Robert Sapolsky, a Professor of Biology, Neurology and Neurosurgery at Stanford University. In it he gives a wonderful explanation of the similarities and differences between humans and the rest of the animal kingdom. Recently, he wrote an article for the New York Times about how understanding metaphors are one of the unique things to humans:
We understand that a captain wants more than just hands when he orders all of them on deck. We understand that Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” isn’t really about a cockroach. If we are of a certain theological ilk, we see bread and wine intertwined with body and blood. We grasp that the right piece of cloth can represent a nation and its values, and that setting fire to such a flag is a highly charged act. We can learn that a certain combination of sounds put together by Tchaikovsky represents Napoleon getting his butt kicked just outside Moscow. And that the name “Napoleon,” in this case, represents thousands and thousands of soldiers dying cold and hungry, far from home.
Another thing he mentions is why we can. It's our bigger and denser frontal cortex. It allows us to not only understand complex metaphors, but also gives us:
Emotional regulation, gratification postponement, executive decision-making, long-term planning. We study hard in high school to get admitted to a top college to get into grad school to get a good job to get into the nursing home of our choice. Gophers don’t do that.


  1. Love me some Sapolsky. Thanks for this.

    I just hope that my life aspirations never fall to getting into the nursing home of my choice.

  2. True, nursing home isn't want gets me up in the morning, but our fear of being old and impoverished might.


You are the reason why I do not write privately. I would love to hear your thoughts, whether you agree or not.