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This tweet and others like it have been making the rounds lately:

Julia‏ @JuliaHass

I just learned that elephants think humans are cute the way humans think puppies are cute (the same part of the brain lights up when they see us) so pack it in, nothing else this pure and good is happening today.

Is this true? I'm trying to imagine someone putting an elephant into an fMRI and measuring their responses to pictures of humans vs. pictures of other elephants (and somehow controlling for their reaction to only seeing specific humans and nothing to do with the circumstances of their test), but I'm not finding any primary sources and this feels suspicious to me.

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    Apparently the tweet has 200k+ retweets and 500k+ likes, so I think that it is notable. The claim is clearly, "the same part of the brain lights up when" elephants see humans as when humans see puppies. – Brythan Dec 23 '17 at 17:09
  • Was the original claim that the same part of human brains light up when elephants see humans as when humans see puppies, and it got misinterpreted? – DonielF Dec 25 '17 at 21:36
  • @DonielF She said what she said. Why would the human brain light up when the person has his eyes shut and can't see an elephant? – jjack Dec 25 '17 at 21:53
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    Elephants don't have smartphones. How could they possibly see humans the same way that humans see puppies? – Daniel R Hicks Dec 26 '17 at 19:22
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It seems unlikely that there is any basis to this claim.

See this question and the answer and comments posted on psychology.stackexchange.com.

While there are, according to @Fizz, CT devices for larger animals such as horses, CT cannot be used for functional imaging of the brain. The maximum mass that can be put onto the stretcher of the CT device is given as "30 stone or more". 30 stone are about 191kg according to Google conversion. Adult elephants however have a much larger mass from approximately 2.000 to 6.000kg depending on species and sex. If a young elephant was used in any study, this would probably have been mentioned.

There is an MRI table for large animals up to 1.100kg which seems to be in the horse-weight range. Other MRI scanner architectures exist, for example an open upright MRI for humans. Whether larger versions for large animals exist is not known.

In order to determine which region of the brain is active the elephant in addition would have to be awake and see a human, otherwise the brain could not process the picture. It seems difficult to physically constrain an elephant so that his head can be used for PET or fMRI.

While MEG or EEG can also be used to determine the region of brain activity, these methods require the solution of an inverse problem with additional assumptions, which are difficult to make.

(Thanks to @Fizz for the main part of the information contained in this post.)

  • Is it because there is no equipment that fits an elephant? – Ooker Dec 25 '17 at 13:33
  • @Ooker Even if there is such an equipment, you would have to show the elephant a human so he can see him and process the picture in his brain. Which means the elephant would also have to be awake during the procedure. – jjack Dec 25 '17 at 14:02
  • I've looked myself for papers on PET or [f]MRI on elephants, and the only one I've found used a chopped up brain of a recently deceased elephant to do some anatomical MRI (not fMRI) scans using a standard scanner sized for human brains. – Fizz Dec 25 '17 at 14:23
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    On the other hand there's an Upright Open MRI type of scanner, which might be large enough, but it's a rare device. – Fizz Dec 25 '17 at 15:15
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    Right, and also the whole "brain lights up" thing presupposes that they are somehow being measured in the wild or are otherwise totally chill with some medical procedure being performed on them while they look specifically at smol humans in a controlled way. That's why I was so suspicious of this in the first place. – fluffy Dec 25 '17 at 21:36

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