Manatee synesthesia

The humble manatee gets no respect. With its potato-like head, stubby flippers, and blimp-shaped body, it looks like something evolution left behind a long time ago. When a manatee recently drifted north and wound up swimming in the Hudson River next to Manahattan, the main reaction from city residents was man, that thing is ugly. Worse, its brain is almost entirely smooth on the outside; and since neurologists typically assume that a more-folded brain indicates higher intelligence, scientists have long assumed manatees are slow, dopey idiots: The cows of the briny deep.

Ah, but this foul libel is finally being lifted — because a new generation of scientists are finally getting interested in the unusually dense vibrissae, sensory whiskers, that cover a manatee’s body. (They use them to detect undersea plants, and they’re accurate up to 0.05 millimeters.) Plenty of animals have vibrissae, but not in such huge numbers, and usually only on their faces.

So when you peel back the hood on the manatee’s much-maligned brain, it turns out to be a torqued-up machine of deep neurological weirdness. Roger Leep, a neuroscientist at the University of Florida, explored sensory clusters in the brain that process information from the whiskers, and made a startling discovery. As the New York Times’s Science section reported this week:

Even more tantalizing is that, in the manatee, these clusters extend into a region of the brain believed to be centrally involved with sound perception.

“Either these things have nothing to do with the hair at all, or the more exciting possibility is that perhaps somatic sensation is so important that the specialized structure is overlapping with processing going on in auditory areas,” Dr. Reep said.

Manatee synesthesia!! I could not be more excited. It reminds me, in a mental random-linking way, of those experimental rigs that let you use your tongue to “see” visual information.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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