“Given the temporal lobe’s relative size in the elephant,” writes Caitlin O’Connell in her recently published book Elephant Don: The Politics of a Pachyderm Posse, “there is every reason to suspect that elephants may be capable of far more complex cognition than is currently understood or documented.”
In terms of cognitive processing, not only do elephants have the largest absolute brain size among land mammals, they also have the largest temporal lobe relative to body size of any animal, including humans. The temporal lobe is that portion of the cerebral cortex devoted to communication, language, spatial memory, and cognition. Given the temporal lobe’s relative size in the elephant, there is every reason to suspect that elephants may be capable of far more complex cognition than is currently understood or documented.
In fact, elephant brains contain as many cortical neurons as human brains and have larger pyramidal neurons (specialized neurons thought to play a key role in cognitive functions) than do humans, suggesting that elephants might have learning and memory skills superior to ours. On top of this, von Economo neurons (or spindle cells)—believed to be involved in social awareness and the ability to make quick decisions and thought to exist only in humans, great apes, and four species of dolphin—were recently discovered in elephant brains.
Considering that this long-lived, highly intelligent mammal has a huge temporal lobe, highly sophisticated neural circuitry, and the largest brain capacity relative to any other mammal, the elephant is a natural focus of cognition experiments. Scientists have made progress on assessing elephants’ visual, vocal, and olfactory discrimination, but other cognitive experimental questions are easier to pose than to investigate. Experimenting with elephants poses elephantine challenges. Scientists rely on white mice, zebra fish, and fruit flies as study animals for a reason—they are cheap to raise and house. It is easy to create a controlled environment for such experiments and to run repeated trials to generate robust data sets. Comparative cognition work has been done on pigeons, pigs, dogs, and primates, but scale up to a study with elephants and it becomes much more difficult to find enough study subjects and run repeated trials.
Researchers have managed to conduct pioneering studies using zoo elephants in the areas of hearing, sensitivity to vibrations, and self-awareness. Yet these three individual studies were limited to a sample size of one. (The self-awareness test was performed with three elephants but only one produced usable data.)
Scientists have long considered the ability to recognize oneself in a mirror to be an index of high cognitive ability and one that is associated with humans, apes, and other highly social animals. To pass the mirror test, an animal has to respond to its own reflection in ways that make clear it sees itself in the mirror, as opposed to thinking it sees another animal of the same species. In the classic test, the experimenter surreptitiously applies a mark or sticker to the study subject, then presents the animal with a mirror. If on seeing its reflection the animal looks for the sticker or mark on its own body, it passes the test.
Two such experiments were done on Asian elephants to determine whether visible or both visible and concealed markings would be explored by elephants in front of a mirror. Neither of the two elephants in the first study reacted to their reflections. In the second study, one out of three subjects explored visible markings on her forehead, an indication she knew she was looking at a reflection of herself and not at another elephant. Although not as indisputable as the responses of great apes, the results were significant enough to warrant further investigation. Perhaps future experiments affording the opportunity for elephants to explore the mirror outside of circumscribed testing times, such as incorporating mirrors into elephant enclosures, would allow more individuals to respond, thereby leading to a stronger result. Such modifications may well demonstrate more definitively that elephants have a concept of self. In the meantime, these same researchers have shown the elephant’s ability to empathize with the misfortune of another and console the other after a traumatizing event (similar to what we often see with an older sister or aunt when a baby gets stuck in the mud or is accidently separated from the group).