Dolphin Brain & Intelligence: Are They Smarter Than Humans?

Two smart dolphins jump with the waves side by side

When we think of smart animals, dolphins often swim to the top of the list. But how exactly do their brains stack up against ours? Are they equipped with the mental muscles to outsmart us?

In this article, we’ll dive into the fascinating world of dolphin intelligence and brain power. We’ll explore whether these sleek swimmers are indeed smarter than humans. 

Let’s jump into the deep end and discover the amazing truths about dolphin brains and their smarts. 

Are Dolphins Smarter Than Humans?

Group of dolphins swimming in the blue sea

Dolphins are smart but not smarter than humans. They’re brilliant at solving problems and communicating with each other in ways we’re just beginning to understand. However, when it comes to skills like planning ahead and making complex tools, humans have the upper hand.

Nonetheless, dolphins are brilliant in their own way; they live in tight-knit groups and team up to hunt and play. They also show empathy, a trait we used to think only humans had. 

However, human intelligence is on a different level. We’ve developed intricate languages and can ponder abstract concepts no dolphin can comprehend. Our scientific endeavors and inventions are proof of this.

So, where does the belief that dolphins could be as smart as humans come from?

Back in the ’60s, a scientist named John C. Lilly did some bold experiments that made many people really interested in how smart dolphins are.

He thought dolphins could chat like us and did some unconventional experiments to prove it. His groundbreaking yet controversial experiments sparked a long-standing interest in dolphin intelligence.

Despite the fascination Lilly’s work inspired, some of his theories have not withstood the test of time. This was pointed out by dolphin expert Dr. Justin Gregg on the Ologies Podcast hosted by Alie Ward.

In the ‘Delphinology Part 1‘ episode with Dr. Gregg, the discussion revolves around our continuous curiosity about dolphin intellect. 

After listening, it became clear to me why people, even some of my expert colleagues, are still so amazed by what dolphins can do with their minds.

How Smart Are Dolphins?

Dolphins are smart creatures with a high degree of intelligence. They are known for their problem-solving skills, mimicry, and use of complex vocalizations.

In fact, they even have the ability to understand syntax and symbols in human communication.

To get a good grasp on just how smart they are, here are some quick facts about dolphin intelligence:

  • Dolphins have a large brain-to-body ratio, a feature often associated with high cognitive abilities.
  • They hunt using clever strategies and work together.
  • They understand complex signals and can follow commands.
  • Dolphins can imitate human actions and sounds.
  • They share knowledge within their groups and across generations.
  • Dolphins recognize themselves in mirrors, showing self-awareness.
  • They show deep emotions and grieve lost pod members.
  • Some studies think dolphins understand death and can decide to stop living.
  • They help each other when hurt, showing empathy.
  • Dolphins use unique sounds like names to identify each other.
  • They must consciously breathe, unlike us, who can breathe without thinking about it.
  • Dolphins sleep with half their brain awake to stay alert.

These are just a glimpse into the remarkable abilities of dolphins. Many of these incredible abilities are thanks to their advanced brains.

For more information about dolphin brain and intelligence, watch this video: 

How smart are dolphins? - Lori Marino

An Overview of the Dolphin Brain

From the way dolphins hunt to how they communicate, we’ve seen that these marine marvels are not just intelligent; they’re exceptional. 

But what lies beneath this impressive display of cognition? Let’s find out by exploring the very organ that powers their intelligence — the dolphin brain.

Cerebral Cortex

The cerebral cortex is the brain’s outer layer, and in dolphins, it’s like a crumpled paper ball — extra wrinkly. Why does this matter?

The extra wrinkles in the dolphin’s brain allow for more connections between brain cells, which is key to intelligence. These complex folds give dolphins the ability to learn quickly and remember well, which is important for their survival in the ocean.

In fact, this has been highlighted in a 2007 study by Marino et al., which examined the cerebral cortex of bottlenose dolphins,

The findings related to how dolphins pack more brain surfaces into a small space, allowing for complex thinking and problem-solving skills. 

Another study by Ridgway and Hanson (2014) suggests that the cerebral cortex in dolphins is not only large but also densely packed with neurons. 

This neuron-packed cortex might be the brainpower behind dolphins’ complex thinking and smart behaviors, such as using tools and hunting together.

Neocortex

Think of the neocortex as the brain’s command center for high-level thinking. It’s where the brain processes complex thoughts and makes decisions.

In this area, the brain also deals with language and consciousness, which are important for how dolphins interact and learn.

Dolphins boast a thick and intricately folded neocortex, even more complex than humans, as Marino and his colleagues discovered in the previously mentioned 2007 study.

This complexity is crucial for reasoning, planning, and problem-solving — essential tools for dolphin social dynamics and survival.

It’s not all about size and shape, though. The dolphin neocortex is also densely packed with neurons, giving them impressive cognitive firepower.

This density is key to their advanced communication abilities, proven by studies like Herman’s in the 1980s and 2000s, highlighting how dolphins understand symbols and gestures.

What’s more, the dolphin’s neocortex is incredibly adaptable. Studies show that a more complex neocortex allows dolphins to handle environmental changes well.

Prefrontal Cortex

The prefrontal cortex is the decision-making part of the brain. In dolphins, it’s particularly well-developed. This region helps them make smart choices and plan their actions.

A fresh discovery from a 2023 study highlights this part of the dolphin brain. 

In the study, researchers managed to outline a part of the dolphin brain that corresponds to the human prefrontal cortex. This feat was previously unachieved because of the unique structure of dolphin brains.

Findings reveal that dolphins’ brain wiring resembles ours, suggesting that these sea mammals might engage in complex thought and problem-solving in ways similar to humans.

Temporal Lobe

Dolphins have a special knack for sound, thanks to their temporal lobes. These parts of their brains are supercharged sound processors, which is important for animals that chat and navigate using sound.

Interestingly, dolphins can pick up and process sounds incredibly fast, much quicker than we can. And this isn’t just handy for their sonar skills; it’s crucial for making sense of all the clicks and whistles under the sea.

All of this sound magic happens in the temporal lobe. It’s like a high-tech control room that fine-tunes all the noises they hear and make. 

Fun Fact: Dolphins have a smart way of hunting. They take turns using their echolocation so their signals don’t get mixed up, which helps them hunt better, says dolphin expert Dr. Justin Gregg on the Ologies podcast.

Hippocampus

The hippocampus in dolphins is like their in-built navigation system, finely tuned for ocean living. It’s what allows them to remember specific locations and find their way across miles of open water.

Studies, such as the one published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, reveal that dolphins have the remarkable ability to recall the location of their peers’ calls, even over vast distances and after long periods. 

Additionally, Dolphins use tools such as sponges for safe foraging, and they have unique whistles that function like names. 

These specific skills are directly tied to the function of the hippocampus. The fact that they have these abilities further highlights the impressiveness and mysteries of their brain.

The Unique Intelligence of Dolphins 

Two dolphins dancing in the waters during sunset

Now that we’ve peeked at how a dolphin’s brain ticks, let’s look at the standout talents they possess. Dolphins have brains wired for high-level tasks, which translate into an array of impressive behaviors in the water.

Let’s zoom in on how dolphins show off their wits in different ways:

  • Understanding of Language Concepts: The previously mentioned 1980s study by Louis Herman and his colleagues, as well as his contribution to a 2000s book, revealed that dolphins can comprehend an array of symbols and gestures. They interpret them in a way similar to how humans understand language. 
  • Cultural Learning: Dolphins share their knowledge with each other, showing they have a culture, too. A good example is how they use sea sponges to cover their noses while they search for food on the seafloor, something scientists first noticed and wrote about in the “Animal Behaviour” journal back in 1997.
  • Self-Recognition: Dolphins have passed the mirror test, an experiment that assesses self-awareness. This indicates a very high level of cognitive function.
  • Empathetic and Altruistic Behavior: Dolphins have been observed expressing empathy, a complex emotion. There are many accounts of dolphins supporting sick or injured individuals, showing how they care for others. A handful of theories aim to explain why dolphins exhibit this emotion, but none have been proven.
  • Unique Vocalizations as Names: Studies have found that dolphins call each other by special whistles. It’s like they have their own names, which helps them keep track of friends and family in the ocean.
  • Conscious Breathing: Unlike humans who breathe subconsciously, dolphins need to think about every breath they take. Since dolphins lack gills and must surface to breathe air, they must remain aware of their need to breathe even while asleep. 
  • Unique Sleep Behavior: Dolphins have a fascinating way of resting. They sleep with one half of their brain at a time, allowing them to be partially alert. This sleep pattern is known as unihemispheric slow-wave sleep (USWS), where one hemisphere of the brain sleeps while the other remains awake. 
  • Collaborative Hunting Strategies: Dolphins employ advanced techniques for hunting that require coordination and teamwork. One notable method involves creating “mud nets” to herd fish, as observed by multiple studies.

Here’s a video showing how dolphins collaborate to hunt:

Dolphins trick fish with mud "nets" | One Life | BBC

On a related note, I’ve studied dolphins up close and have seen how they sleep. They have a special way of resting called “logging.” During this state, they remain partially alert, conserving energy while ready to act if needed. 

Seeing dolphins in this state is fascinating to watch because while they are asleep, they are still on the lookout for predators or any signs of danger. 

What’s more, they often synchronize their movements with other dolphins in their pod, maintaining a tight-knit group even as they drift in the gentle currents.

It’s obvious dolphins think in special ways, and we have so much more to learn from them. They show us how smart sea creatures can be and make us ponder more about what intelligence really means.

Dolphin Brain vs. Human Brain: What’s the Difference?

Dolphin catching a fish in the ocean

We’ve always wondered what makes us humans so different from other animals, thinking there was one special thing behind our big achievements. 

For a time, scientists thought unique neurons gave us the upper hand. 

However, since these are also present in dolphins (and other intelligent animals), the question arises: what makes our brains different, specifically from those of dolphins?

1. Dolphins have large brains for their body size, but not as large as those of humans

Dolphins are known for having big brains compared to their body size, which helps them with complex tasks and social interactions. However, when you compare them to human brains, there’s a clear size difference. 

Humans have the largest brain-to-body ratio of any species, which is thought to be linked to our advanced cognitive abilities and complex behaviors.

2. Dolphins have a greater number of support cells relative to thinking cells

In dolphin brains, there’s a higher number of cells that support and protect the neurons, which are the cells that do the thinking. Humans, on the other hand, have a higher proportion of neurons themselves. 

This could suggest that human brains are more designed for complex thought processes since we have more of the cells that are directly involved in thinking. 

A recent 2021 study from the University of the Witwatersrand indicates that the large number of support cells in dolphin brains, particularly the glial cells, may be used for thermogenesis.

In other words, they may be there to maintain brain temperature in cold oceanic environments. These glial cells contain proteins specialized for heat production rather than supporting cognitive functions.

3. Dolphins’ brains lack the structures for complex language that are found in humans

While dolphins can communicate with each other using a variety of sounds and signals, their brains don’t have the same structures that humans use for complex language. 

In human brains, areas like Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas are critical for producing and understanding sophisticated language, something that dolphins’ brains don’t have an equivalent to.

4. Human brains are more developed for fine motor skills

Humans have parts of the brain that are specifically tuned for detailed motor skills – like writing with a pen or playing a guitar. 

These areas are more developed in humans than in dolphins, mainly because our day-to-day activities have relied heavily on precise hand movements, something not as critical in aquatic life.

5. Dolphins have a better auditory system in their brains compared to humans

Dolphins have a really good hearing system in their brains, way better than what we have. This special hearing lets them use sound to figure out where they are and talk to each other in the ocean, a trick called echolocation. 

They can pick up on all kinds of sounds that people just can’t hear, and that’s very important for them, especially since they can’t see very well under the water.

6. Human brains are more specialized for detailed visual processing than those of dolphins

Humans rely heavily on vision to navigate our environment, and our brains have evolved to process visual information with high detail. 

We excel at recognizing intricate patterns, reading small print, and distinguishing subtle shades of color, all of which are facilitated by specialized visual processing areas in our brains. 

Dolphins, while having good vision, tend to prioritize auditory information due to their marine habitat. 

Frequently Asked Questions

Group of dolphins swimming in the blue ocean

How Are Dolphins So Smart?

Dolphins have complex brains; they live and work together in groups, and they need to solve problems to survive in the ocean. Their brains help them learn, remember, and communicate in ways that seem pretty smart to us.

What Is the IQ of a Dolphin?

Measuring the IQ of a dolphin is not straightforward since human IQ tests are not transferable to non-human species. 

However, by measures of animal intelligence, dolphins are considered highly intelligent, comparable in some aspects to human children.

Are Dolphins the Smartest Animals?

Dolphins are definitely one of the smartest animals, but it’s tough to say who’s the smartest of all. Different animals are smart in different ways that work best for where they live and what they need to do.

Are Dolphins Smarter Than Dogs?

Dolphins might be better at some thinking games and working together than dogs. But dogs are also smart in ways that matter for their lives, like following trails, tracking scents, and understanding people.

Are Dolphins Smarter Than Sharks?

In terms of behaviors that we associate with intelligence, dolphins are generally considered to be smarter than sharks.

Dolphins exhibit more complex behaviors, such as using tools and showing sophisticated social interactions. 

Meanwhile, sharks rely more on instinct and less on the kind of learning and problem-solving abilities that dolphins display. 

Are Dolphins Smarter Than Apes?

Dolphins and apes are both highly intelligent, each with impressive cognitive abilities suited to their environments. 

Comparing their intelligence is challenging because they excel in different areas, and we don’t have a quantitative measure to rank them on the same scale. 


Going back to the original question, do you think dolphins are smarter than humans? Let us know your thoughts on the intriguing minds and remarkable intellect of dolphins in the comments!

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