Elephants Never Forget

The phrases we use every day without even thinking are fascinating to me. I was wondering the other day if elephants really do have great memories and, after reading some incredible research, I can tell you they do.

Elephants have the largest brain of any land mammal. I know, you’re thinking, “They are very large animals, of course they have big brains.” They actually have big brains for their size too. This is called the encephalization quotient, which measures the size of the brain relative to body size, and elephants rank at the top of mammals with dogs and cats being higher but horses and rodents being significantly lower. However, it is not just size that matters, it is structure.

Elephants have brain structures similar to humans. They have as many neurons and synapses as humans, and a highly developed hippocampus and cerebral cortex. The cerebral cortex enables them to solve problems, have a language and even create art. The hippocampus though is strongly associated with emotion that aids recollection by encoding important information into long term memory. This is one of the reasons elephants actually do have very good long-term memories.

Unfortunately, it is also why elephants are one of the few non-human species who experience post traumatic stress disorder. Elephants have an amazing capacity for empathy, altruism and justice. They are the only non-human animals to mourn their dead, performing burial rituals and returning to visit graves. Elephants have even shown concern for other species.

Memory is a useful thing and losing it is disastrous for an individual. It is also critical for a community. Like an elephant, our ability to remember is necessary for our collective sense of empathy, altruism and justice.

Memorial Day is one way we help ourselves remember things that, while unpleasant and sad, are necessary for us to function as our better selves. We have the opportunity during this time to recall the sacrifices that were made for our freedoms, including the freedom to disagree with how those freedoms were gained and have been held. We also have the opportunity to be grateful for what others have done for us.

Individuals who served in war-time experienced things they may not wish to remember. The capacity to empathize and care also brings the capacity to be harmed and scarred. For them, Memorial Day can be difficult and triggering. We have the privilege of being there to support them and acknowledge their pain. This should be true every day, but especially so on Memorial Day.

There is another saying that I hear repeated often: “Those who forget history are destined to repeat it.” This has new meaning for me when I apply it to how I interact with the people in my life. I have the capacity to sense the emotions of those around me and experience those emotions to a degree. This is called empathy. Those emotions then cause my brain to store the things that are happening, including what I have or have not done, as long-term memories. Those memories then enable me to repeat behaviors that are healthy for the people around me and avoid behaviors that are unhealthy to those around me.

Empathy is vital for a community to flourish. As I look around our city, state, nation and even the world, I see very little empathy. Maybe this is what is wrong. I know we may not be able to change the world, but we should be able to change someone’s world. Let’s start with the people we work with. Let’s start by using that big brain of ours (our encephalization quotient is 7 times an elephant’s) to put ourselves in other people’s shoes and try to understand what they are thinking and feeling.

Today, I encourage you to tell a veteran that you appreciate their service on your behalf. Service that resulted in our freedoms and opportunities. Starting Tuesday, let’s all be a little more like elephants and not forget the lessons that are all around us. Together we can continue to build a community marked by empathy, altruism and justice. It’s the Kimray Way.