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STIAS Lecture Series 2017: Onur Güntürkün – The Parallel Evolution of Cognition in Birds and Mammals

STIAS Public Lectures Series

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Professor Onur Güntürkün, Professor for Biopsychology at the Ruhr-University Bochum and STIAS fellow will present the second public STIAS lecture of 2017 with the title

 The Parallel Evolution of Cognition in Birds and Mammals


STIAS Fellow Onur Güntürkün


In short, my question is the following: Is it possible that the ability for higher cognition arose several times in parallel during evolution? This could imply that some very different animals also developed brain mechanisms that can generate highly intelligent behavior.

Until very recently, scientists thought that the emergence of the neocortex (the outer layer of the brain in humans and other mammals) was a prerequisite for complex cognition. Birds and all other non-mammalian beasts own nothing that resembles the neocortex. Thus, according to the classic view of neuroscience, we mammals should be the only group of animals that have complex cognitive abilities. Unfortunately, this view is wrong. Studies of the last two decades revealed that especially corvids and parrots are cognitively on par with  apes. In fact, there is not a single cognitive ability demonstrated in chimps (brain weight 400g) that meanwhile was not also demonstrated in corvids (brain weight 12g). So, the neocortex does not seem to generate a computational advantage that surpasses the capacity of the non-cortical avian forebrain. Just the reverse seems to be true: birds churn out more brain power with far less brains. Since the evolution of birds and mammals parted ca. 300 million years ago, it is likely that birds have taken a completely different neural route to generate complex cognition. The really fascinating point is the following: The way that birds solve cognitive problems is virtually identical to the way we mammals do. Thus, birds and mammals convergently developed two very differently organized forebrains that nevertheless generate virtually identical cognitive abilities. My talk is about these discoveries but also about preliminary experimental results that could give answer to the burning question how birds achieve all this.

Listen to the lecture

This clip contains:

  • Welcome by STIAS Director Hendrik Geyer & Introduction by Stellenbosch biochemist Jannie Hofmeyr to 6m50s;
  • Lecture by Onur Güntürkün to 1h02m;
  • Discussion to end.

Onur Güntürkün is a Turkish-born Professor for Biopsychology at the Ruhr-University Bochum in Germany. He is kept awake with questions like: “why do humans and other animals have asymmetrically organized brains?”, “can different kinds of brains produce the same cognition?” or “what is the neural substrate of our thoughts?”. He spent years of his life in different universities in Germany, France, the USA, Australia, Turkey, and Belgium. He mostly uses humans and pigeons as his experimental subjects but also loves to do science with dolphins and magpies. Onur Güntürkün works with all kinds of research approaches that reach from simple field work to brain imaging at ultrahigh magnetic fields, is a member of the German National Academy of Sciences, holds two honorary doctorates, and received numerous national and international scientific awards, among them both the highest German and Turkish science award.

Date and time

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

13:00 – 14:00​

All times are in SAST (UTC+2)


No location.

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