Icon Books Ltd., 2011. ISBN 978-1-848-31223-4.
Reviewed by Judy King
Posted on 09/21/2011
Did you know that if an Australian magpie stares at you with only its left eye, it is more likely to fly away, and that if it studies you with its right eye, it is more likely to move closer to "check you out?" You may think, "so, what?" or "I hope none of my tax money is going to fund that kind of useless research." But is it useless?
The researcher who observed this habit in magpies also "associated this finding with research on the human brain that shows that the right hemisphere (to which the left-eye information goes) processes novel and potentially threatening information. The left hemisphere is more prone to carry out information analysis—hence the right-eye investigative stare." If this is true in human brains, it may also be true in bird brains. If so, this insight provides another measure of evidence for how closely related we humans are to all the other creatures with which we share this planet.
In their book, Bats Sing, Mice Giggle: The Surprising Science of Animals' Inner Lives, Karen Shanor and Jagmeet Kanwal describe this and dozens of other recent discoveries about how animals sense and interact with their environment and each other. Without anthropomorphizing, they show that animal behaviors are remarkably similar to human behaviors—behaviors that we thought set us above all other living things.
They summarize previous thoughts on many animal behaviors, like echolocation in bats, and bring the studies forward to the present. "Advanced technologies allow those studying life processes to shift from the 1990s focus on cells and molecules to learning more about waves, oscillations, frequencies and subatomic (quantum) activities and their interactions with the molecular structures of life," they write. For example, scientists studying how bat brains are wired to process the information generated by their high-pitched sound pulses have discovered that bats have "computational circuits, more advanced than the most powerful supercomputer ever built, that extract all of the relevant information in a sound signal almost instantly."
Why does this matter? "Knowledge of how the brain computes information using echolocation is helping the blind to see," Shanor and Kanwal write. "Scientists have developed dark glasses that are mounted with mini-speakers that emit sound pulses, along with microphones that listen to the echoes and convert the information into a visual landscape."
Some findings from studies of animal behavior and physiology have resulted in rather surprising applications in human medicine. Several amphibian species have been found that can withstand deep freezing. Their hearts and other organs shut down completely, but when the temperature rises, they revive just as completely. The possibility of using cold as a therapy in some injury interventions was tested not long ago when a professional football player suffered a spinal injury in a game that could have left him paralyzed. "Quick intervention by lowering his body temperature is credited with saving him and allowing him to regain the use of his arms and legs," the authors observe. It may be possible in the near future to use cold therapy to reduce the amount of damage suffered by stroke and heart attack victims.
You have only to flip through the Notes, References and Further Reading section at the back of the book to see just how current the information is. Publication dates of 2008, 2009, and 2010 are common. If it's been a few years since you took introductory psychology in college, and you found it interesting, this book will be a treat. I would even recommend it to younger readers with an interest in animals, although they may want to keep Wikipedia open so they can look up terms.
Dr. Karen Shanor is a neuropsychologist, a former White House consultant, and an advisory member of Discovery Channel Global Education. At Stanford University she researched how rats learn, and how cats dream. Dr. Jagmeet Kanwal is an internationally recognized neuroethologist and Professor of Physiology and Biophysics at Georgetown University. He discovered the presence of taste centers in the fish forebrain and a left-brain dominance for social calls in bats. Visit the book's website.
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