The image above shows the filaments that make up the large-scale structure of the Universe. Scientists can pin point exactly where the Milky Way is on one of the filaments. Each dot in this image is a galaxy or cluster of galaxies. According to physicist, Roger Penrose, what’s in our head is orders of magnitude more complex than anything one sees in the Universe: “If you look at the entire physical cosmos,” says Penrose, “our brains are a tiny, tiny part of it. But they’re the most perfectly organized part. Compared to the complexity of a brain, a galaxy is just an inert lump.”
Each cubic millimeter of tissue in the neocortex, reports Michael Chorost in World Wide Mind, contains between 860 million and 1.3 billion synapses. Estimates of the total number of synapses in the neocortex range from 164 trillion to 200 trillion. The total number of synapses in the brain as a whole is much higher than that. The neocorex has the same number of neurons as our galaxy has stars: 100 billion.“All stars can do is pull on each other with gravity,” writes Chorost, and, if they are very close, exchange heat.”
One researcher estimates that with current technology it would take 10,000 automated microscopes thirty years to map the connections between every neuron in a human brain, and 100 million terabytes of disk space to store the data.
Galaxies are ancient, but self-aware, language-using, tool-making brains are very new in the evolutionary timeline, some 200,000-years old. Most of the neurons in the neocortex have between 1,000 and 10,000 synaptic connections with other neurons. Elsewhere in the brain, in the cerebellum, one type of neuron has 150,000 to 200,000 synaptic connections with other neurons. Even the lowest of these numbers seems hard to believe. One tiny neuron can connect to 200,000 neurons.
“The universe could so easily have remained lifeless and simple -just physics and chemistry, just the scattered dust of the cosmic explosion that gave birth to time and space,” says Richard Dawkins, the famed Oxford evolutionary biologist reflecting on the sheer wonder of the emergence of life on Earth and the evolutionary process in his classic The Ancestor’s Tale.
“The fact that it did not -the fact that life evolved out of literally nothing, some 10 billion years after the universe evolved literally out of nothing -is a fact so staggering that I would be mad to attempt words to do it justice. And even that is not the end of the matter. Not only did evolution happen: it eventually led to beings capable of comprehending the process by which they comprehend it.”
The neocortex, Latin for “new bark,” is our third, newly human brain in terms of evolution. It is what makes possible our judgments and our knowledge of good and evil. It is also the site from which our creativity emerges and home to our sense of self.
The Neocortex says Carl Sagan in his iconic Cosmos, is where “matter is transformed into consciousness.” It comprises more than two-thirds of our brain mass. The realm of intuition and critical analysis,–it is the Neocortex where we have our ideas and inspirations, where we read and write, where we compose music or do mathematics. “It is the distinction of our species,” writes Sagan,”the seat of our humanity. Civilization is the product of the cerebral cortex.”
Sagan believes that extraterrestrials will have brains, “slowly accreted by evolution, as ours have,” and will perhaps share similarities. He believes any successful, long-lived civilization will, by necessity, have resolved the tensions of our various brain components. Extraterrestials, too, “will have extended their Mind extrasomatically into intelligent machines.”