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Remarkably Human, isn’t it?

Nelly Khaselev's picture

Do not stand by my grave and weep
I am not there, I do not sleep,
I am the thousand winds that blow,
I am the diamond glints on the snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain
I am the gentle Autumn's rain,
When you awaken in the morning's hush                                 Remarkably Human, isn’t it?
I am the swift uplifting rush                                                             By Nelly Khaselev
Of quiet birds in circled flight,
I am the soft stars that shine at night,
Do not stand by my grave and cry,
I am not there, I did not die. [2]


         This poem by an unknown author was reportedly found in an envelope beside a soldier killed by an exploding mine near Londonderry, 1989.  Grief is one of the most moving emotions humans express. After a death or any major life change, the feeling of grief and sorrow creeps up from the inside. You just wish it were all a dream. It is commonly believed that humans are the only animals complex enough to have these deep emotions and thoughts. However, researchers believe that the behavior of elephants definitely expresses grief when a loved one, a herd member, or a family member passes away. It has been recorded that elephant mothers will stand in silence for several days by her dead baby before accepting the death and rejoining the heard, and even then for weeks struggling slowly behind the rest. Similar behavior has been observed throughout various species of elephants widespread throughout the globe. When an elephant herd approaches a pile of elephant bones, a sudden silence falls amongst the herd members. The elephants will caress the bones, as if trying to identify the deceased. Commonly, it has been found that elephants will hover one foot as they (what seems to be) pay homage to those passed away. Observing this behavior, many questions pop to mind. Do the elephants really know the meaning of death? Can they really understand that when one of them dies, they will not be coming back? Do elephants have a sense of self?

The first step towards answering these questions, or at least getting a story that perhaps explains these questions, I researched the neurobiology of the elephant brain to see if is comparable to the human brain. Two scientific studies conducted at Bryn Mawr Hospital aimed to uncover the regional brain activity related to grief. The first study specified their experiment by looking at women grieving a romantic relationship breakup. The researched hypothesized that while the participants remembered their ex-partners they would see increased activity in certain brain regions [4]. In the second study, the researchers aimed to better understand the functional neuroanatomy of grief. They did this by drawing out grief in eight women, who recently suffered the loss of a loved one, through photographs of the deceased versus a stranger, combined with words specific to the death event versus neutral words [3]. Both studies showed large and immediate increased brain activity in the cerebellum, although other results varied. For example, the first experiment dealing with women grieving over a romantic relationship break up concluded that increased brain activity were largely (other than in the cerebellum) in the posterior brainstem, postal temporoparietal and occipital brain regions and decreased brain activity in the insula and parts of the cingulated. The second study focusing on the functional neuroanatomy of grief after a death concluded increased brain activity in posterior cingulated and medial/superior frontal gyrus, and in the insula, unlike the first study. Further imagining studies are needed to create a better story to explain the neurobiology of grief.

        Using my current findings, I hypothesized that if elephants did really experience grief, as it appears to be after having observed their behavior; elephants and humans must then have similar brain structures and complexities, specifically the cerebellum. In fact I found that this is true, from a brain research bulletin describing the gross morphology, functions, and comparative anatomy, and evolution of the elephant brain. This present study is an attempt to investigate elephant brains systematically, providing illustrations for clarifications and attempting to fill in missing, incorrect, or misunderstood information in a holistic approach to gain knowledge of the largest living terrestrial mammal. The scientific paper summarizes and organizes massive amounts of information about the elephant brain, its quiet interesting.
        On the whole, the elephant brain follows the basic brain plan of higher placental mammals with a well-developed telencephalon, corpus callosum, and a prominent development of cerebral gyri and sulci, showing a degree of gyral complexity intermediate between the primate (human) and cetacean patterns. An elephant brain, however, depicts a number of differences in proportion and configuration with respect to the human brain. In other words, more studies need to be performed before any convincing stories can be drawn about grief in elephants. Fascinatingly, the Elephant’s cerebellum is 1.8 times larger than that of human. Gyri and sulci on the cerebellar hemispheres have complicated patterns with many subconvolutions, relative to human cerebellum. The cerebellum to cerebrum ratio of the elephant brain is larger than the human and chimpanzee ratios, as well. In addition, typically the cerebellum is subdivided into three lobes, however in the elephant brain, there are four easily defined lobes. The implication of this difference is yet to be completely understood. What's more, Intelligence is very difficult to measure in humans, let alone in animals. The encephalization quotient (EQ) has been employed as a measure of the ability of an animal to cope with newly developed challenges and obstacles in its environment. Species with larger average brains, in relation to average body size (related to EQ), show greater ability to process and utilize complex information – something necessary to experience grief.
          The sight of seeing an elephant mother feeding her dead baby food with her trunk or lifting the four months premature baby with her tusk and trunk to move the baby away from sun to keep the pale skin from burning, truly makes you wonder [6]. Remarkably human, isn’t it? The death of a loved one, the pain that is felt, the sorrow and grief is not unique to the mankind. The further study of grief in humans and in elephants can do much further than simply add to the increasingly more convincing story that humans are not much different from animals. The realization that elephants have the potential to grieve raises the question of their sense of self. Can elephants discern themselves from others and the world around them? In addition, any new information about grief has the potential to give insight to medicine to relieve depression, a disorder hundreds of people suffer from.

Works Cited

1. Barden, Claire. "Not So Dumbo." BBC Wildlife 2003. 10 May 2008 <>.

2. "Grief." 2007. 10 May 2008 <>.

3. Gündel, Harald, Mary-Frances O’connor, Lindsey Littrell, Carolyn Fort, and Richard D. Lane. "Functional Neuroanatomy of Grief: an FMRI Study." Am J of Psychiatry 160 (2003). Abstract. American Journal of Psychiatry: 1946-1953.

4. Najib, Arif, Jeffrey P. Lorberbaum, Samet Kose, Daryl E. Bohning, and Mark S. George. "Regional Brain Activity in Women Grieving a Romantic Relationship Breakup." 161. Abstract. American Journal of Psychiatry (2006): 2245-2256.

5. Shoshani, Jeheskel, William J. Kupsky, and Gary H. Marchant. Elephant Brain. Elephant Research Foundation. Elsevier Inc, 2006. 124-157. 10 May 2008 <>.

6. "Unforgettable Elphants." NATURE. PBS. 10 May 2008 <>.

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Paul Grobstein's picture

grief: in humans, elephants, and ... ?

Yes, humans are more like animals than we sometimes think. But "animals" differ from one another. I wonder what animals (humans included) do and do not experience "grief", and how THAT relates to variations in nervous system organization?