Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Can We Chill Out About How Complex the Brain Is?

Time for busting another lazy hook:

"We won't be able to understand the brain. It is the most complex thing in the universe," says Professor Sir Robin Murray, one of the UK's leading psychiatrists. (BBC)


This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. Your brain has nearly 100 billion neurons, and one of my next guests compares that complexity to the Amazon rainforest. In fact, he says there about as many trees in the Amazon as there are neurons in your brain. Think about what the Amazon looks like for a second.

And the roots and the branches and the leaves and the vines, all of that can be compared to the tangled network formed between your brain cells because many of your neurons are in fact wired to tens of thousands of other neurons. That incredible complex network is packed into a soft, three pound organ inside your head, making it, as my next guest [Christof Koch] says, the most complicated object in the known universe.


The center's goal is to understand the biological parts and processes behind such phenomena as consciousness, moral behavior and logical thought. "There are more synapses in the brain than stars in the galaxy," Cohen notes. "We are studying the most complex device in the known universe." (Princeton)

1.  The brain is not the most complex thing/device/object in the un/known universe.

If the brain is so complex, then isn't the human head more complex?  It has more stuff in it than just the brain, therefore it must be more complex.  Hey, why not the human body?  Wait a minute, why not everything on planet Earth?

If you really care, the most complex thing in the universe is, in fact, the entire universe.

2.  There's a lot of stuff in the brain and we don't know how it all works yet.

This is what people mean when they talk about how complex the brain is.  More trees than the Amazon!  More stars than the Milky Way!  Stick that in your pipe and smoke it!  Numerically unfathomable = complicated.

3.  The cool part about brains isn't how much stuff is in them - it's what they do with that stuff.

I know people like big numbers (for some reason), but I think us scientists and science communicators can more effectively hook our audiences' attention by talking about what the brain does instead of how many synapses it has.

So can we let go of the needless hyperbole? 


  1. Personally, I prefer small numbers, like p < .01.

  2. I told my friend the Mona Lisa was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. He said "Ahahaha, well if that is true, then why is The Louvre not the most beautiful thing, it contains the Mona Lisa and more. And why not Paris and planet earth....."