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Magic conveniently "explains away" many things associated with shapeshifting, but in the course of some of my fiction writing, I endeavor to include some slightly more plausible explanations when possible.

One such aspect I've not been able to create a satisfactory explanation for is how a shapeshifter might retain most or all of their cognitive ability and memory as an animal with a much smaller or different brain structure.

One of my ideas is that the retention of such mental faculties is time-limited. The longer the shifter spends in a form, the more at risk he is to lose memories, etc. This introduces a risk factor which is sometimes good, for example, to give the protagonist an obstacle or limitation.

However in a different scenario, it would be useful to have a somewhat believable method by which a shapeshifter could effectively process and remember information—as a tiny mammal or bird—compared to his or her human brain. What sort of ways might this be explained?

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    $\begingroup$ This is by no means a full fledged answer, but maybe the shapeshifter is actually a higher dimensional being? $\endgroup$ – overactor Oct 25 '14 at 9:11
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    $\begingroup$ How do your shape shifters manage to change their mass and volume? That might be relevant on how they could retain mental capacity. $\endgroup$ – celtschk Oct 25 '14 at 11:58
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    $\begingroup$ Intelligence and brain-size aren't proportional. Otherwise a sperm-whale with a brain five times the size of a human brain would be much smarter than any human. $\endgroup$ – Philipp Oct 25 '14 at 14:07
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    $\begingroup$ The ratio of brain size to body size isn't important either, otherwise most small birds would outsmart us. $\endgroup$ – Philipp Oct 25 '14 at 14:13
  • $\begingroup$ @celtschk That's another oft-magicked-away topic. (The question Is there a credible way a shapeshifter could gain/lose body mass when changing forms? discusses it.) In one scenario, I explained it (very loosely) as sort of a stored energy principle. The character somehow converts extra mass to energy (which I realize is a ridiculous amount) and can use it for mass generation at other times. The problem of course is "where is the energy stored?" which I never dealt with. $\endgroup$ – JYelton Oct 25 '14 at 16:42
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Some ideas:

  • the shape-shifter has access to a 'higher dimension' or a different realm - some sort of storage facility where electrical charges (or whatever is involved in retaining memories) can be kept, as well as physical strength, clothes, and whatever else you want the person to retain when they get back to their own body. This basic idea is used in KA Applegate's Animorphs series and in David Eddings's Belgariad and Malloreon.

  • the shape-shifter is actually a shape-swapper, and whenever they change into a mouse, say, a mouse somewhere changes into them! The memories of each creature could be stored in the brain of the other but only accessible to itself, so your shape-shifter has the body of a mouse but access to a human brain. This is one of the theories raised in Allan Ahlberg's book 'Woof!'.

  • the shape-shifter only takes on the outer appearance of a mouse (sticking to the same example) and all the complexity of a human brain is simply crammed into a smaller space. After all, artificial data storage devices are constantly getting smaller, so why not have a mouse-brain-sized thing that can take as much information as a human brain? Maybe the shape-shifter can even consciously dictate how things are arranged inside the body, so if they're capable of becoming either a mouse or a bird, then they could also become a feathered mouse (with a scaled-down human brain). This is similar to what kandras do in Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn series.

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    $\begingroup$ +1 The swapper idea is definitely great for a totally different kind of story! (I own Woof! also. :) ) I am inclined to favor the idea for more precise dictation of physiological makeup: if we take the concept of shapeshifting further, the innate ability to control cellular structures seems just as acceptable. Thanks for the ideas. $\endgroup$ – JYelton Oct 25 '14 at 16:53
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You could posit that he shifter does not actually change form. What changes is how the universe itself perceives the shifter.

If the shifter changes into a dragon for example, he can now breathe fire because the universe believes that dragons can breathe fire. If he becomes a mouse, he can fit down a mousehole because a mouse can, not because he has actually changed.

He looks like a mouse because the laws of the universe say a mouse looks like a mouse, not because he has become a mouse.

We are essentially gaming the laws of reality at a relatively high level. We're not shifting quanta, we're modifying idea space.

In computational terms the shifter reassigns his superclass, something that most languages render impossible for good reason. He is still the same object, but he is now able to appear and act in the universe as a though he were different object. He is the same, but not the same.

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  • $\begingroup$ While that doesn't involve shapeshifting, this is the approach taken in the Wolf's Rain anime. That is shown clearly in a few places, like wolf paw prints where human footprints "should" have been based on how the humans (and viewers) perceived what happened. The wolf characters there are always wolves, but they are able to at will trick humans into believing that they look human. Gives rise to a couple of "interesting" situations in encounters with non-wolves. $\endgroup$ – a CVn Oct 27 '14 at 9:02
  • $\begingroup$ Cool, except here we have the universe as an observer, so the shifter really can fly, or fit through small gaps because he is gaming the rules of the universe. $\endgroup$ – superluminary Oct 27 '14 at 17:22
  • $\begingroup$ This is the way I've always understood fae/fay/faerie glamour's to work. It's not true shapeshifting but its so close it don't make no nevermind. Also interestingly references to double slit experiments, wave-particle duality,and quantum mechanics would be appropriate if using this explanation. $\endgroup$ – Samantha Colón Jan 26 '18 at 1:52
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Information in the brain could be stored on DNA short-term and reloaded upon shifting to larger brain sizes. You don't use most of you brain so vast parts of it it wouldn't need to be stored. Of course even without compression you can store the entire capacity of the human brain on 66,667 DNA strands. For comparison there's 100,000 neurons in a fruit fly's brain according to Wikipedia.

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Since you're dealing with some hand-waving anyway (Where does all the mass go?), some or all of these could be used. It strikes me that the shape-shifter might treat non-self transformations as memories of dreams. As such, a non-self transformation, when dealing with memories or processing can be looked at through the lens of lucid dreaming.

When the animal in question is of a much lower physical capacity than the shifter, that's ok, because the shifter knows it to be a dream. The shifter knows the rules of the game still apply (like hungry larger creatures are still hungry and in their dream, can have a snack of the shift's dream self), but the shifter may in fact walk an uncanny edge by behaving more like a sentient shifter than a bird, for example.

Looking at it through the lens of a wider fantasy setting, this means that attempting to impersonate a creature with greater faculties may give the impression of a mentally challenged member of that species, as the native members would see the behavior and/or mind of the shifter to be lacking something that's inherently them.

Biology-wise, our active regions are quite voluminous when compared to the size of a crow's brain, yet the crow can use tools, have fun, experience elder family bonds, and solve puzzles, so it is not too far fetched that some capacity can remain with a resized brain. For extreme resizes (beyond an order of magnitude, say, to a cockroach from human), you might look at "heat" penalties for advanced thought, carrying a risk that some crucial link to the shifters' self can get melted by too high a current, after which they lose themselves and become what they've transformed into, allowing for new identities to be born. This also provides an opportunity to develop from a story standpoint as a shifter who is not as well fortified against this effect and even reducing their brain mass by 2% gives them headaches. Alternately, paragon shifters can transform into dragonflies and actually reach a destination, as long as they don't try to think about philosophy in the background. Maybe this is where Zen as a concept comes from in this world?

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There used to be a theory that the heart stored our emotions, and one of the early recipients of a heart transplant, in all seriousness asked if after receiving the new heart if he would still love his wife or if he would love those of the donor.

A friend of mine takes that one step farther. He believes that the 'mind' is separate from the brain. The brain is just another organ like the heart and if we did a 'brain transplant' the mind would stay the same, by replacing an Alzheimer's brain with a healthy brain, he believed the person would be back to 'normal'. While I'm not really able to swallow that it could certainly be a 'decent' story-line to take. And it would still be possible that the longer one was in an animal form, the more the form would start to affect the mind.

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  • $\begingroup$ Well, if the brain isn't storing information, what is? @Black suggests that information could be stored in DNA, which is plausible I suppose. The concept of a mind being separate from the brain is akin to the body having a soul. Which, depending on the story, may or may not be appropriate. I do however endorse the idea that forms affect a shapeshifter's mental state. I propose that the chemistry and composition of the animal mind imposes its unique strengths and weaknesses on the human persona contained therein, more strongly over time. $\endgroup$ – JYelton Oct 27 '14 at 21:50
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    $\begingroup$ Yes, the idea was more along the lines you body/soul. $\endgroup$ – bowlturner Oct 27 '14 at 23:30
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Considering the fact that memory is nothing but electronic pulses in the brain, as long as your shapeshifter exists of cells, then they will still retain memories.

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People need to realize that the reason why brains are smaller in some mammals vs the size of an elephant's brain, for example, is NOT because they have more information or have more knowledge. It is because of the shape and structure of their skull. If you look at a cat's brain, it looks a lot more wrinkly because all parts of their brain must fit into their tiny skulls.

With shapeshifting, I think memory is an important factor. If they can shapeshift exactly like another organism, that means they had the visual technique and memory to be able to transform like them. So looking at the brain as a whole, the part of the brain that takes care of memory and vision would be primarily responsible for the action of shapeshifting. BUT those two are obviously not the only ones that would be affected. more scientific factors would be involved, much too complex and quite impossible to explain.

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Maybe the shapeshifter does not have a brain per se, instead all (or most) of its cells act as neurons. It needs much larger number of cells to reach the same level of thought as the more specialized vertebrate brain made of specialized cells, but if all of its cells were contributing it may be enough.

This would also mean that losing tissue is a bigger deal to it than to us, since if it loses an arm it is also losing the memories and skills stored in those cells.

This also means they think slower (longer connections), although their reflexes would probably be better since they would only involve local cells.

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