Brain size & scaling – virtual lab activity

Each year in my intro bio-anthro class, we start the course by asking how our brains contribute to making us humans such quirky animals. Our first lab assignment in the class uses 3D models of brain endocasts, to ask whether modern human and fossil hominin brains are merely primate brains scaled up to a larger size. In the Before Times, students downloaded 3D meshes that I had made, and study and measure them with the open-source software Meshlab. But since the pandemic has forced everyone onto their own personal computers, I made the activity all online, to minimize issues arising from unequal access to computing resources. And since it’s all online, I may as well make it available to everyone in case it’s useful for other people’s teaching.

The lab involves taking measurements on 3D models on Sketchfab using their handy measurement tool, and entering the data into a Google Sheets table, which then automatically creates graphs, examines the scaling relationship between brain size (endocranial volume, ECV) and endocast measurements, and makes predictions about humans and fossil hominins based off the primate scaling relationship. Here’s the quick walk-through:

Go to the “Data sources” tab in the Google Sheet, follow the link to the Sketchfab Measurement Tool, and copy the link to the endocast you want to study (3D models can only be accessed with the specific links).

Following the endocast Sketchfab link (column D) will bring you to a page with the 3D endocast, as well as some information about how the endocast was created and includes its overall brain size (ECV in cubic cm). Pasting the link when prompted in the Measurement Tool page will allow you to load, view, and take linear measurements on the endocast.

Hylobates lar endocast, measuring cerebral hemisphere length between the green and red dots.

Sketchfab makes it quite easy to take simple linear measurements, by simply clicking where you want to place the start and end points. The 3D models of the endocasts are all properly scaled, and so all measurements that appear in the window are in millimeters.

The assignment specifies three simple measurements for students to take on each endocast (length, width, and height). In addition, students get to propose a measurement for the size of the prefrontal cortex, since our accompanying reading (Schoenemann, 2006) explains that it is debated whether the human prefrontal is disproportionately enlarged. All measurements are then entered into the Google Sheet — I wanted students to manually enter the ECV for each endocast, to help them appreciate the overall brain size differences in this virtual dataset (size and scale are often lost when you have to look at everything on the same-sized 2D screen).

Feel free to use or adapt this assignment for your own classes. The assignment instructions can be found here, and the data recording sheet (with links to endocast 3D models) can be found here — these are Google documents that are visible, but you can save and edit them by either downloading them or making a copy to open in Docs or Sheets.

Ah, teaching in the pandemic 🙃

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