Sciency Words: Encephalization

Today’s post is part of a special series here on Planet Pailly called Sciency Words.  Each week, we take a closer look at an interesting science or science-related term to help us expand our scientific vocabularies together. Today’s term is:


I’m going to let my friend Og the Caveman handle the definition of this term.  Og?

Thanks, Og!

The process of encephalization was rather important to humans of Og’s time.  The term refers specifically to the gradual, somewhat clumsy evolutionary process whereby an organism’s brain becomes larger over time.  The word itself derives from the Greek word for brain, which in Greek appears to be a compound word (en+ kephale) meaning “in the head.”

My first encounter with this term was in a recent issue of Scientific American, in an article about the social behavior of whales and dolphins.  According to the article, brain size can be correlated to social behavior.  Animals that have evolved larger brains (relative to overall body mass) tend to have more complex social interactions with each other and also tend to live in larger social groups.  This seems to be true for both primate and cetacean species.

Now it seems pretty clear to me that the word encephalization is intended only to describe the gradual process of brains growing larger over time, over the course of many, many generations of evolution.  It would be totally inappropriate, therefore, to use the term as part of the origin story of some brainiac super villain… to write about an “encephalization machine” that went haywire during a top secret government experiment.

Nope.  It would be woefully inappropriate to use the word in that way.

P.S.: Though if some hack of a Sci-Fi writer were to do that, don’t be surprised if the encephalized brainiac super villain teams up with that Mars rover NASA reprogrammed for science autonomy.

12 thoughts on “Sciency Words: Encephalization

  1. One theory has it that we humans got our encephalization nutritionally handled by chowing down on nutrient dense bone marrow. Just in case said sci-fi writer wanted their villain to have a dietary caveat to their sudden powers.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh that’s a cool idea too! Yeah, the Scientific American article also mentioned that brain size correlated to diet. They didn’t say anything about bone marrow specifically, but it seems larger brains require a wider variety of nutrients.


  2. That’s so funny. As I was reading this I was thinking about Sci-fi applications for it but you stated it wouldn’t work and I fully agree with you.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t know, it may just say something about me, that it did not occur to me that an encephalized person could also become a hero. Honestly, I wonder why that didn’t occur to me at all.

      Also, usage determines definition, So if we keep using the word this way, eventually the dictionaries will say it’s right!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh, it’s definitely not just you. That image is The Leader, the Hulk’s archenemy, a character created in the 1960s. They both got exposed to gamma rays. The Hulk became big, stupid, and strong, hence the hero, while the Leader became smart, hence the villain. It seems to represent a long cultural appreciation of innocent strength, and a deep distrust of people who get too smart. (The Hulk was my favorite comic character, so I totally bought into these memes in my youth.)

        Totally agreed on usage determining definition. Usage is what lexicographers, the people who maintain dictionaries, monitor to derive their definitions.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I guess we are all, to some extent or another, the product of the culture we live in. Maybe it would be more interesting to tell the story of the brainiac who everyone assumed was a villain but was, in fact, the hero.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow, thank you so much! I’m not sure when or if I’ll be able to do an acceptance post, given my current writing schedule and all the things I still need to catch up on. But thank you, I really appreciate that you thought of me for this award!

      Liked by 1 person

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