On the Miraculous Brain

by F.

I recall arguing with a friend in high school over which was more amazing—the human brain or some (suitably interesting) astronomical object, like a black hole. At the time, I tended to go with the black hole (or spiral nebula or whatever). Probably this was the lingering influence of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, which altered my life forever. See, we didn’t have a Cosmos for psychology back then, so I was heavily biased by Sagan’s wonderful science-as-spirituality approach and came away thinking that nothing could be more interesting than astronomy, astrophysics, and similar fields.

Today, fortunately, there are books like the wonderful Why Choose this Book by Read Montague. Were I having the same argument with my friend today, I would most likely come to the opposite conclusion and say the brain—no question. A black hole? Who cares about that? It’s not even, like, alive! My perspective now is that almost any biological system is more amazing than a black hole.

Buy or check out Montague’s book from the library. It’s a fast paced, witty, fun tour through the would of computational neuroscience. Computer-oriented folks especially will love it, as will materialistically oriented philosophers. Here’s a tidbit:

The average hundred -watt lightbulb costs about a penny an hour to run, at average market rates for electricity in the United States in 2005: around ten cents per kilowatt-hour…. A human being sitting comfortably in a chair consumes energy at a rate of about a hundred watts, roughly equivalent to the average lightbulb! And this consumption is running literally everything—digestion, blood pumping, breathing, mental function, and a myriad of other processes. The brain consumes about a fifth of this rate; therefore, while sitting, the brain costs about a penny every five hours to operate, less than a nickel a day—now, that’s an efficient machine!

I know—I know: this doesn’t seem very fair to the lightbulb. Because of Montague’s obvious anti-incandescent bias, I decided to interview the lightbulb next to me, to see what he thinks. He’s pretty bright, after all. Not only is he 120 watts, he’s full spectrum. Below is a transcript of the conversation. The podcast will come later.

Me: OK, Lightbulb, what are you thinking about?

Lightbulb: [silence].

Me: It’s OK, don’t be shy. I mean, I don’t need an exhaustive description—just a couple of things you’re thinking about.

Lightbulb: [silence].

Me: What do you do beside, like, shine light?

Lightbulb: [silence].

Me: Have you been reading my blog?

Lightbulb: [silence].

Me: Why not?

Lightbulb: [silence].

It went on like this for almost thirty minutes. Obviously, the lightbulb is rather taciturn. I’m currently trying to ply him with Talisker. Check back tomorrow for a full transcript.

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