If you look closely at yourself in a mirror, behind those great looks lies the sophisticated world of the most complex organ ever to be produced in the history of this universe: the human brain. Weighing around 1.4 Kg, this is the control center that runs all your bodily operations needed to keep you alive. The brain is made up of around 100 billion neuron cells (give or take) and each neuron is connected to another 10,000 other neurons, with the total connection exceeding the number of stars in the Milky Way galaxy. That is how complex the brain is. But what is the purpose of such a complex organ?

From an evolutionary point of view, the main reason for our brain is not to help us think, feel, or create nice art, but actually to control the movement of our body. According to neuroscientists, a brain is useless in an organism that does not move. Consider plants and trees. They do not have a brain because they do not need to move. The sea squirt is a good example; it starts its life as a small tadpole that has one eye, one tail, and a very primitive brain that guides its movement in water. In the second part of its life, it searches for a suitable piece of rock to attach to for the remainder of its life and never moves again. Once it stops moving, does it use that time to contemplate on the meaning of life? No, it eats its own brain for energy!

Our brains evolved over millions of years, perfecting the way we move, long before we started developing any of the more sophisticated functions of thinking and planning. But why is movement so important? Remember that we evolved in a ruthless environment: eat or be eaten. Our ancestors had to develop the ability to move in search of food while avoiding becoming food themselves to other predators. That is the reason why our brains are counter-intuitively located inside our head. It would have made more sense for nature to place the brain in the chest area for better protection, rather than attaching it to the rest of the body by such a weak slim stem as our neck. But the brain is best located in the head because the eyes, ears, and nose are also situated there. These three sensory organs are best positioned in the head where they get the best view and optimal orientation when looking, sniffing, or listening for desired targets. With their millions of receptors receiving signals, such as light, smells, and sound vibrations from far distances, the sensory organs transmit critical information to the brain through a sophisticated network of neurons and axons. The closer the brain is to those sensory organs, the faster the transmission speed. The eyes, ears and nose are essentially just an extension of the brain. They provide an early warning system for locating potential prey and predators, giving the brain enough time to react with a suitable plan of action. This power of prediction is the engine driving the evolution of intelligence in all animal species, especially humans.

One important feature of our brains is the speed at which they process sensory information. This is directly linked to the speed at which we experience time running in our mind. The brain’s information processing speed forms the basis of an ‘internal clock’ that ticks faster as the speed of processing sensory information increases, and slower as the processing speed decreases.

The brain’s internal clock is similar to the ‘clock speed’ on a computer microchip processor that determines how many calculations a computer can perform per second (GHz). However, this computer vs. brain comparison is not entirely accurate as there are major differences between the types of information processing that go on inside a human brain, and the computations typically performed by a computer.

A calculator, for instance, can perform mathematical calculations much faster than a human brain because our brains are not optimized for calculating square roots, division, or compounded interest calculations. Our brains evolved to track motion and can record a stream of images, figure out that they belong to a ball moving in the air, predict its trajectory, and catch it while simultaneously processing other visual signals needed to avoid obstacles on the way. Brains perform well in areas in which computers perform poorly.

To give you an idea of the number of computations that happen in the brain when performing a simple act, such as catching a ball, researchers attempted to simulate similar brain calculations using the K-Supercomputer in Japan, currently the fourth most powerful in the world. It took 40 minutes for the supercomputer to calculate the same brain activity generated by one per cent of the brain working for just one second! Just so you know, the K-supercomputer contains 705,024 processor cores and 1.4 million GB of RAM, yet it still needed 40 minutes to crunch all the data generated by just one second of brain activity. Incidentally, the K-Supercomputer is about the size of a basketball court and consumes as much electricity as a small town of 10,000 suburban homes. In contrast, a human brain’s processing power is confined to a skull that is smaller than a basketball, and has a power consumption of about 30 watts that can barely power a small light bulb!

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References & Notes:

  1. Wittmann M. Moments in time. Front Integr Neurosci. 2011;5:66. doi:10.3389/fnint.2011.00066.
  2. Lloyd D. Neural correlates of temporality: default mode variability and temporal awareness. Conscious Cogn. 2012;21(2):695-703. doi:10.1016/j.concog.2011.02.016.
  3. Fraisse P. Perception and estimation of time. Annu Rev Psychol. 1984;35:1-36. doi:10.1146/annurev.psych.35.1.1.
  4. Nagy E. Sharing the moment: the duration of embraces in humans. J Ethol. 2011;29(2):389-393. doi:10.1007/s10164-010-0260-y.

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