From the misty horizons of the savannas to the chaotic life of the developing cities, East Africa has a lot to teach any visiting human. For me, the most important lessons came from nature and wildlife. Practically every animal I came across highlighted something important about the mechanics of the brain and mind. Except the mosquitos of course. Satan could not find a more torturous sound than the high-pitched whine of a mosquito near the ear. However, despite some bloodsucker-ridden sleepless nights, this trip to Africa was by far my most mind-expanding. I’ve sat in many neuroscience and psychology classes in my life, but East Africa has become my favorite professor.
The Habituated Gorillas
On arriving in Uganda, my first stop was Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. The main purpose of this stop was to find wild mountain gorillas in the rainforest. Along with a group of 8 other guests, we followed the rainforest guides through the national park. After a trek of just over an hour, we already saw the first signs of a family of gorillas. We slowly approached them and stood quietly among the family as they got on with their usual eating and playing habits.
My first moment of surprise came when I realized how close we actually were to the gorillas. The silverback gorilla — the 400-pound dominant male in the group — was an arm’s reach away at times. This is not to say that the gorillas were our friends. They were simply habituated to small human groups.
Habituation is the process of getting used to something. It is possible thanks to the brain’s regular tilt toward adaptation. Whenever we find ourselves in a new environment, whether it is thrilling or alarming, it typically does not take long for us to settle down and perceive it as the new norm. Habituation explains our eventual boredom with an exciting new home or job, and it explains our calm enjoyment of events that initially made us deeply anxious. For the gorillas, it meant that they could comfortably tolerate the presence of a small group of human visitors among their family.
When scientists run experiments with human babies, a primary tool at their disposal is the habituation paradigm: a newborn’s interest in a particular object can be gauged by measuring how long they spend looking at it before getting bored and looking away. For example, we know that babies as young as 2 days old prefer animations of biological motion (e.g. a walking hen) over random patterns of motion, because they spend longer looking at the biological examples. Our quick habituation to randomness and slow habituation to biology suggests that we are innately drawn to visuals that appear biological. Habituation is a core part of human psychology, gorilla psychology, and the psychology of many other animals.
Aside from the gorillas’ sense of habituated calm during my stint with them in the forest, the other fascinating feature of the their behavior was their intelligence. When an unfortunate guest in our group found himself standing in one of the silverback’s favorite forest paths, the silverback mounted a charge toward him, but stopped right before hitting him. The gorilla knew how to threaten and scare the man off the track without hurting him, and also knew to avoid starting a war with the human guides and conservation specialists he recognized as allies. Not long after that, I watched a young gorilla clap, with either excitement or appreciation, after seeing his brother pull off an impressive acrobatic feat on a tree branch. It looked uncannily human.
When comparing brains across species, a traditionally used metric is the encephalization quotient (EQ), which is the ratio between the actual size of an animal’s brain and its expected size given the animal’s body mass. Generally speaking, animals with a bigger body have a bigger brain to control that body, so if we want to work out whether an animal’s brain is particularly special in terms of intelligence, we first need to rule out the effects of its overall size.
The cat is typically used as the standard for mammals, and is assigned an EQ of 1. With this arbitrary reference point, we can think of a cat’s brain as being in perfect proportion to its body. Then, any mammal with an EQ higher than 1 has a larger brain than you would expect given its body size, and any animal with an EQ lower than 1 has a smaller brain than you would expect. Although EQ has frequently been used as a metric for species intelligence, the relationship does not always hold well across the animal kingdom. A gorilla’s EQ (1.5–1.8) is surprisingly small when compared to, for example, the EQ of capuchin monkeys (2.4–4.8). And yet, their intelligence certainly seems to surpass that of the monkeys.
When relating intelligence to brain anatomy, it is important to bring together a number of different anatomical features. If we look only at EQ, gorillas seem to sit lower than they should in the chain. If we look only at total neurons in the cortex, long-finned pilot whales totally destroy humans, with almost twice the number of neurons. Therefore, to accurately predict intelligence from brain anatomy, we may need to consider other important features including how densely packed neurons are within the brain and how fast signals can travel down those neurons. These combined features give us a stronger reading of information processing ability, and a more accurate representation of species intelligence comparisons: humans sit comfortably at the top, followed by apes, monkeys, and then cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises).
The Elusive Lions
My longest search was undeniably for the lions. During the first search day, my wife and I travelled through the savanna in a Toyota Land Cruiser with eyes and minds wide open. Our fantastic driver, Dan from Kisoro Tours, kept us motivated, happy, and optimistic (this is no paid advert, but please know, if you ever do want an unforgettable experience in East Africa, Dan is your man). About an hour into the drive, I thought I had seen my first lion. In fact, it was the Ugandan kob, a common antelope. I was excited regardless, which Dan found slightly amusing for reasons I wasn’t aware of at the time. How could I have known that those widespread kobs would soon deplete my brain of its much needed lion-searching energy?
I’ve previously written about how our expectations impact our perceptions. When we actively search for a target, our brain compares everything in the world to a mental template of that target. This means that whenever an irrelevant object looks similar to the target, enough to cause significant overlap between our mental template and the irrelevant object we see, it sets off false alarms in our decision-making. For example, when birds like Japanese tits hear a snake-alarm bird call, they actively search for anything that looks like a snake in their environment, and are consequently fooled by sticks that look like snakes. In my case, on the savanna, the lions were the snakes and the kobs were the sticks. Kobs looked too similar to my mental template of a lion, so whenever a distant kob caught my eye, it would lead me to shout, “STOP, LION!”. Dan would then stop, reverse to where I made the call, and then politely tell me that I have once again been fooled by a kob. Birds are fooled by sticks. I am fooled by kobs.
Each time my perception was fooled, I was able to refine my mental template of a lion by ruling out the clearer kob-like qualities that I was noticing in my false alarms: I was learning that “lions have less reddish backs”, and “lions have less prominent ears”. A more specific lion template made it easier to distinguish kobs from lions, and led to fewer false alarms. Unfortunately, at the end of our first day on the savanna, the result remained all kob and no lion.
We returned for a second day of lion-searching. My finer-tuned brain meant that kobs no longer fooled me, but a lion sighting looked no more likely. Just as we were about to give up toward the end of the day, Dan got a call from his lion ranger pal in the park, who had tracked down a pride of lions and was standing nearby hidden amongst some bushes where the lions could not see him. He was on the look-out for any evil poachers who might dare try to kill his beloved lions.
We drove swiftly to his location, and got a fortunate and stunning look at the lions sitting in the shade, curiously keeping their eyes on my nervous face in the Land Cruiser. Staring directly into the eyes of a lion who sits 3 yards away is a terrifying experience. Even knowing that you are relatively safe in a large metal box, you cannot help but feel a primitive fear like nothing else. It’s great to be occasionally reminded that we are vulnerable biological organisms, replete with automatic fears and instincts that evolved during the course of 4 billions years of life on Earth. Never put money on beating a lion at a stare-off. You will lose every time.
When it was time to leave the lions, we drove toward the ranger to thank him for his help. After 5 minutes of chat, we looked behind us to notice that the lions had begun to stalk us. They now looked less curious, and more hungry. Needless to say, the ranger also looked a little uneasy when he realized that we had blown his cover in the bushes. Luckily, he came prepared with a getaway motorcycle and a gun to keep himself safe if the worst did begin to unfold. Given Uganda’s careful love and protection of their wildlife, I’m certain he would let a lion kill him before he would send a bullet toward the lion. Thankfully, warning shots into the sky are sufficient for deterring threatening lions.
The Sleeping Leopard (and the Guy Who Stole the Tip)
Leopards have a notorious reputation of being hard to spot. They are shy creatures who frequently hide in trees. But rather unbelievably, and completely unlike our lion search, we fortuitously noticed a leopard lying by the side of the road on a drive out of our accommodation lodge in Uganda. We pulled to a stop and enjoyed the leopard’s careless majesty as it napped.
For a moment during this possibly once-in-a-lifetime exercise, my mind drifted to a notable event that happened a few minutes ago back at the lodge. As I was putting a final 20 dollar bill into the tip box at reception, a hotel employee came over to help me push it into the slot. I didn’t think much of it, and turned my attention towards putting a couple of dollar bills into another donation box for environmental conservation. But as I did this, I heard the sound of a paper bill being rapidly pulled out of the tip box.
I was sure I misheard, but as the worker walked back to his desk at the front of the lodge, I turned and saw the 20 dollar bill hidden in his right hand. He had stolen his coworkers’ share! It was one of those quickly-passing moments where my brain had insufficient time to process what was happening, and before I knew it, I was in the Land Cruiser ready to leave the lodge. I didn’t want to make a fuss about it there and then. The employee was actually enormously helpful during our stay and so the tip was at least partly going to the right place. And it was only 20 bucks. But it was a notable event because literally every single other person we interacted with during our stay in Rwanda and Uganda was unbelievably warm, friendly, and generous. In hindsight, I probably should have said something quietly to him and put the money back in the box so that the other hard-working and honest staff got their fair share. But as you know, hindsight is 20/20.
The reason I mention this event is because it’s a great example of how much life we waste on worrying about past annoyances and should-haves. Fortunately, I had been working on my mindfulness exercises throughout my stay at the lodge, and that helped to bring my attention back to the leopard lying in front of me and the elephants that we would soon meet, rather than the incident back at reception. But for a moment, I almost missed an opportunity to fully appreciate an event that I may never get to witness again.
It’s always worthwhile to consider our behavior and psychology in the context of other living animals. It reminds us of our humble evolutionary origins, and injects a practical suppressant into our veins to dampen our inflated feelings of human superiority. I’ll never forget East Africa’s savannas, stretching further into the horizon than the eye can make sense of. And I’ll never forget the abundant green among the trees, grasses, and flowers. But most of all, I’ll never forget the wildlife. Even the drone of the mosquitos will live firmly in my mind as a catalyst for the most inspirational and productive memories of Africa. Perhaps the mosquitos had a lesson to teach after all.