May 29, 2011 | David F. Coppedge

Appreciate Your Gifts

We like to showcase stories of amazing animals, but humans are special, too.  What animal can boast some of the qualities that science has recently reported?

  1. Math brain:  Studies of Amazon tribespeople show that they have an innate understanding of Euclidean geometry, even without ever learning it at school.  For the BBC News, Jason Palmer reported, “Tests given to an Amazonian tribe called the Mundurucu suggest thatour intuitions about geometry are innate.”
        People in the Mundurucu tribe only have approximations for numbers, and no language for geometry, but they showed comparable skill to French and US schoolchildren, even exceeding them in some ways.
        The researchers believe this shows that geometry is intuitive for humans: “they seemed to have an intuition about lines and geometric shapes without formal education or even the relevant words.”  They even grasped some non-Euclidean geometry better than some westerners, such as understanding that parallel lines on a sphere can intersect.
  2. Baby skill set:  Live Science posted a gallery of “Nine Brainy Baby Abilities,” including innate knowledge of social power, mind meld with dogs, following others’ moods, dancing, mimicking, learning during sleep, rudimentary math abilities, ability to learn language, and innate ability to judge character.
  3. Infant rationality:  A study in Science was titled, “Pure Reasoning in 12-Month-Old Infants as Probabilistic Inference.”1  Whether they can or Kant make a Critique of Pure Reason is a question for philosophers.  The abstract said,

    Many organisms can predict future events from the statistics of past experience, but humans also excel at making predictions by pure reasoning: integrating multiple sources of information, guided by abstract knowledge, to form rational expectations about novel situations, never directly experienced.  Here, we show that this reasoning is surprisingly rich, powerful, and coherent even in preverbal infants.  When 12-month-old infants view complex displays of multiple moving objects, they form time-varying expectations about future events that are asystematic and rational function of several stimulus variables.

    See also the Live Science review of this paper.  It commented that robot designers have biomimetics on their brain: “The goal, [Joshua] Tenenbaum [MIT] said, is a sort of‘reverse engineering’ of infant cognition that might help robotics developers build machines that interact with the world more like the human brain does.”

  4. Beautiful brain:  Behind the outward shows of rationality are amazing cells.  Science Dailyposted a color picture of the brain’s most common cell, the astrocyte.  “Long considered to be little more than putty in the brain and spinal cord, the star-shaped astrocyte has found new respect among neuroscientists who have begun to recognize its many functions in the brain, not to mention its role in a range of disorders of the central nervous system.”  A group of researchers at the University of Madison-Wisconsin has now succeeded in culturing some of these cells in a lab dish.
        Other animals have astrocytes, don’t they?  “Astrocytes, some studies suggest, may even play a role in human intelligence given that their volume is much greater in the human brain than any other species of animal,” the article answered.  They are involved in every brain function.
  5. Blind as a bat:  The BBC NewsMedical Xpress and Live Science discussed how the blind can develop a sixth sense, a kind of echolocation, that helps them navigate in the absence of vision. “Some blind people are able to use the sound of echoes to ‘see’ where things are and to navigate their environment,” Live Science said.  “Now, a new study finds that these people may even be using visual parts of their brains to process the sounds.”
        In fact, even sighted people can learn how to echolocate.  This raises the interesting idea that humans are “over-engineered” for perception, but through lack of practice fail to use all the latent abilities available to them.
  6. Power stroke:  When you switch from walking to running, your body switches gears.  The power in walking comes from the hips, but when running, the body switches to get its power from the ankles, an article on PhysOrg discussed.  Researchers at North Carolina State measured this “tradeoff” that occurs automatically; humans just take it in stride.

Microsoft has a novel take on human beings: use them as antennas.  Live Science reported that since the human body gives off detectable electromagnetic signals, the signals could be harnessed to create a home automation system that learns the layout of the house, then automatically responds to the body.  Some day you might turn on lights when you walk into a room, use gestures to turn up the thermostat or control the volume of music, or operate appliances without knobs or switches.
    The human body is a natural antenna, the article said.  “It reliably picks up the electromagnetic signals that emanate from all electrical systems and appliances in the home.  These ambient signals can be used to create an affordable home automation system that controls household electronics with a pat on the wall or even a simple hand gesture.”
    Many are already familiar with the Wii and Kinect game consoles that respond to body movements, and light switches that respond to hand clapping.  Tapping into human electromagnetic signals opens up new vistas.  The possibilities for “controller free living” are virtually limitless, reporter Leslie Meredith said.
    A visitor from the past would probably worry he was seeing witchcraft if a wave of the hand could turn on the lights – but it would just be a clever application of manipulating plain old natural forces, like the old theremin musical instrument that fascinated 1920s viewers with music made by a wave of the hand (see Theremin World).  When humans can get cats to respond to gestures, then they’ll really have something.

1.  Teglas, Vul et al, “Pure Reasoning in 12-Month-Old Infants as Probabilistic Inference,” Science, 27 May 2011: Vol. 332 no. 6033 pp. 1054-1059, DOI: 10.1126/science.1196404.

Have you ever seen an animal make shadow puppets of human beings?  Why not?  Parrots can talk and sing, but they don’t reason about parallel lines on spheres.  Gorillas make gestures, but they don’t write software to turn up the music with them.  Peregrine falcons are fast, but humans make jets that fly faster than sound.  Whales are great divers, but humans build submarines that study life at deep-sea vents.  Birds navigate by the stars, but humans build spacecraft with star trackers that orbit distant planets.  It seems we have some bragging rights.  Let the one who designed these innate capabilities in himself cast the first boast. 

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