Brain Things

The human brain fascinates me. My science class days may be far behind me — and truth be told, my only biology class was the mandatory unit back in Grade 10 before science became optional — but that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate all 100 billion neurons that make up that squishy, wrinkled organ sitting floating in my skull.

Isn’t it strange that the brain named itself? I love that. What a wonderfully self-absorbed organ. The more I try to unravel the mysteries of the human brain, the more amazed I am at how complex the brain truly is. My narcissistic brain just can’t get enough, which is why I indulged in this book:

4. A book of non fiction (February 9)

Michio Kaku is a theoretical physicist — to which my first reaction was “Just like Sheldon Cooper!” — but you don’t need a science degree to follow along. It’s conversational without being condescending. Plus, Kaku explores — in all seriousness — questions we all have but are too embarrassed to pose to real scientists, such as “Could artificially intelligent robots become so smart that they take over the world?” and “Could I up/download my consciousness onto a computer and live forever?” Come on, that’s pretty awesome.

But what I find even more awesome than what technology might do in the future is what our brains can do and have been doing all along. The fact is even the most sophisticated piece of technology is no match for what the human brain can do. Just how much more sophisticated? There was one illustration that really stuck with me in this book.

Brain vs. Supercomputer

To fully appreciate this illustration, let me first introduce you to IBM’s Blue Gene project. It designs supercomputers, which are basically regular computers on steroids.


I’m the daughter of two computer programmers, meaning I grew up hearing all about the computers from ye olde days. These ancient computers were great beasts of machinery that filled entire university classrooms buildings, glorified adding machines that read very specific lines of code you had to punch onto a series of orderly cards.

Today’s tech can easily run circles around them, but I have yet to see a smartphone or tablet that elicits the same awe and respect my parents have for those prehistoric giants.


So picture today’s state of the art technology creating a supercomputer that still requires rack upon rack of cabinets, an endless row of blinking lights and switches. This computer can carry out 20.1 trillion operations per second. Even this supercomputer doesn’t come close to rivaling the human brain.

If we were to somehow duplicate the brain in computer form, it would take thousands of these supercomputers. Forget filling a building; we’d need to free up a whole city block just to contain this enormous piece of machinery. It would take a nuclear power plant to keep it running and an entire river to stop it from overheating.

Yep, all that to recreate the three-pound piece of tissue sitting in our heads.

That’s just one example of the many reasons why I like reading books like these. I suppose you could make the argument that reducing it to a bunch of cells firing off electric signals takes away some of the wonder of the brain, but I disagree. How could you not be more enthralled by the complexities of the brain the more you begin to understand it?

[T]he more I learn about the sheer complexity of the brain, the more amazed I am that something that sits on our shoulders is the most sophisticated object we know about in the universe…Instead of diminishing the sense of wonder, learning about the brain only increases it.

The Future of the Mind by Michio Kaku

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