Is the Human Brain Special?

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The human brain is puzzling — it is curiously large given the size of our bodies, uses a tremendous amount of energy for its weight and has a bizarrely dense cerebral cortex. But: why? Neuroscientist Suzana Herculano-Houzel puts on her detective’s cap and leads us through this mystery. By making “brain soup,” she arrives at a startling conclusion.

Suzana Herculano-Houzel

Suzana Herculano-Houzel is an associate professor at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where she heads the Laboratory of Comparative Neuroanatomy. She is a Scholar of the James McDonnell Foundation, and a Scientist of the Brazilian National Research Council (CNPq) and of the State of Rio de Janeiro (FAPERJ). Her main research interests are the cellular composition of the nervous system and the evolutionary and developmental origins of its diversity among animals, including humans; and the energetic cost associated with body size and number of brain neurons and how it impacted the evolution of humans and other animals. Her latest findings show that the human brain, with an average of 86 billion neurons, is not extraordinary in its cellular composition compared to other primate brains – but it is remarkable in its enormous absolute number of neurons, which could not have been achieved without a major change in the diet of our ancestors. Such a change was provided by the invention of cooking, which she proposes to have been a major watershed in human brain evolution, allowing the rapid evolutionary expansion of the human brain. A short presentation of these findings is available at She is also the author of six books on the neuroscience of everyday life for the general public, a regular writer for the Scientific American magazine Mente & Cérebro since 2010, and a columnist for the Brazilian newspaper Folha de São Paulo since 2006, with over 200 articles published in this and other newspapers.

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