Tiny insect brains can perform remarkable feats of mental gymnastics

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Washington, November 18 (ANI): A growing number of studies indicate that although insects have tiny brains, they can perform some seriously impressive feats of mental gymnastics.

According to a report in Discovery News, the studies indicate that insects can count, categorize objects, even recognize human faces - all with brains the size of pinheads.

Despite many attempts to link the volume of an animal's brain with the depth of its intelligence, scientists now propose that it's the complexity of connections between brain cells that matters most.

Studying those connections - a more manageable task in a little brain than in a big one - could help researchers understand how bigger brains, including those of humans, work.

Figuring out how a relatively small number of cells work together to process complex concepts could also lead to "smarter" computers that do some of the same tasks.

"The question is: If these insects can do these things with such little brains, what does anything need a big brain for?" said Lars Chittka of Queen Mary University of London, who presented his arguments along with colleague Jeremy Niven in the journal Current Biology.

"Bigger isn't necessarily better, and in some cases it could be quite the opposite," he added.

According to Sarah Farris, an evolutionary neurobiologist at West Virginia University in Morgantown, scientists are finally moving past the idea that locusts, ants, bees and other insects are simple machines that respond to events in predictable ways.

Study after study now shows that insects can, in fact, change their behavior depending on the circumstances.

Honeybees, which have been the focus of Chittka's work, have tiny brains with fewer than a million neurons. Yet, the insects can classify shapes as symmetrical or asymmetrical.

They can pick objects based on concepts like "same" or "different."

They can also learn to stop flying after a prescribed number of landmarks rather than after a certain distance.

Ants and bees have notoriously complex social systems. Along with other insects, they can move in a surprising number of ways to communicate or get around.

"Knowing how an insect functions and produces complex behaviors with a brain that's a million-fold smaller than ours makes it a little easier to envision that we might be able to model some of these behaviors," Farris said.

"It's wonderful to see that insects are finally being compared equally with vertebrate animals," she said. "They have smaller brains, but they still have complex enough brains to do these things," she added. (ANI)

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