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Which is bigger: the Universe or the human brain?

Illustration for article titled Which is bigger: the Universe or the human brain?

If you'd asked Emily Dickenson this question, she would have told you that "The brain is wider than the sky / For, put them side by side / The one the other will include / With ease, and you beside."


Boom. Case closed, right? Not exactly. Over on NPR, Robert Krulwich has complicated the whole Universe vs. brain debate with some damn compelling arguments from both camps. It's an exceptional piece — the kind of blog post Krulwich was born to write — and one that you should really read in full. We've included an excerpt of it here, but you'll want to head over to NPR for all the delicious, crispy cosmological bits.

Writes Krulwich:

While I agree with Dickinson, the brain is formidable - does it get the crown?

Well, let's hear from the Universe; As critic Kathryn Schulz wrote recently, if you think of the cosmos the easy way, as a giant expanse with stars, planets and gas clouds, then yes, a mind can imagine all that ("and you beside"). But what if we make it a little harder, and consider the mysteries of dark energy, the space/time continuum, Higgs fields, teeny bits of energy popping up out of nowhere and then vanishing into the smallest imaginable spaces? What if I tell you that the faster you go, the bigger you get, until at the speed of light, your mass increases enormously?

"Many people think that this is silly," wrote astronomer Carl Sagan, "and every week or two I get a letter from someone who complains to me about it," but no matter how strange it seems, this happens to be true, experimentally, verifiably true. But truths like these aren't easy to take in. Our minds boggle.

"The universe is not only queerer than we suppose," said the biologist J.B.S. Haldane, "but queerer than we can suppose." In Haldane's view, the universe is bigger than the brain. There are things we just can't know, or even conjure with the brains we've got... So does the universe get the crown?


Now go read the rest. You'll be glad you did.

Top image via the New York Times

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William Krapek

I've got news for you: the mind *is* a universe. And the best of us have understood that for thousands of years.


"That which is above is like that which is below and that which is below is like that which is above, to achieve the wonders of the one thing."


The more I learn about the weirdness of the cosmos the more I learn about myself. Materialists may rightfully crow about their discoveries. But none of their latest would surprise a Hermeticist or Gnostic living in the Roman Empire.

(In fact they'd sigh heavily with relief since most people thought they were crazy.)

Still. Even on a practical, materialist level: if you measured complexity in terms of light, stretching from a flashlight to a quasar, one single human brain has the equivalent brightness of a quasar...

An ancient, extinct stellar object flaring with the light of one trillion suns.