Explore the greatest scientific frontier—the human brain—that uses a quarter of the body’s entire energy supply, yet only accounts for about two percent of the body’s mass. So how does this unique organ receive and, perhaps more importantly, rid itself of vital nutrients? How exactly does the brain work? How does it create inspired inventions, the feeling of hunger, the experience of beauty, the sense of self?… What is it that makes you you?

By Saurav Bhandary 

What is it that makes you you? It is your brain and the data it holds- your memories and your personality. One could argue that it is both more sophisticated and efficient than any supercomputers that exist today. For as smaller, faster and powerful as computers have gotten at today’s digital age, they still are no close match for the comparison with the human brain. Sure, they are good at what they are programmed to do, but when we measure what a human brain is capable of, it is really not that close.

What Makes the Human Brain Special?

It is well established that the human brain is one of the most energy-consuming organs. Although the brain accounts of less than 2% of the weight of the human body, it gobbles up more than 20% of daily energy intake just to keep things in order (Koch, 2016). Despite all the scientific breakthroughs we have had, the human brain is still utterly alien to us. Yet, our language abilities, face recognition, decision-making, creative thinking all depend on the integrity of this 3 lb biological tissues.

Credit: (Fischetti, 2011) / Scientific American

For decades, scientists from all around the world have been working very hard to build a computer that can calculate faster than the human brain, and store more information. The K computer, one of the most powerful supercomputers in the world, is capable of handling a mind-boggling number of tasks in far less than the blink of an eye. According to Fischetti (2011), this supercomputer computes four times faster and holds 10 times as much data. But the million-dollar question is how efficient is the K supercomputer? In addition to occupying a lot of space, the K supercomputer uses enough electricity to power more than 10,000 houses. The annual running cost is estimated at the US $10 million, which is about $19 per minutes per supercomputer. It is not that comparable to the human brain, after all, is it?

“The human brain is so efficient that it consumes less energy than a dim lightbulb and fits incredibly well inside our skull. In fact, our brain generates enough electricity to power a lightbulb.  Biology does a lot with a little: the human genome, which grows our body and directs us through years of complex life, requires less data than a laptop operating system. Even a cat’s brain smokes the newest iPad—1,000 times more data storage and a million times quicker to act on it” (Fischetti, 2011). 

How much can our brain store?

Well, it is almost impossible to quantify the amount of information in the human brain partly because it consists of more information than we are consciously aware of (Such as faces, languages, and basic functions like how we speak). There is no actual way to measure how much processing power a human brain has, and there is a similar problem when it comes to determining its storage space. The human brain isn’t exactly like a hard drive because it is so prone to fading, which is why we do not remember everything. There is always some spaces available because not everything is retained indefinitely. It can be argued that the human brain can store an indefinite amount of information.

Researchers have discovered the brain chemicals that cause sleep paralysis (Scientific American, n.d.). Most of our dreaming occurs during REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep that happens around 90 minutes after you fall asleep, although some can also occur in non-REM sleep, according to the Scientific American. Since the brain is very active during this sleep phase, dreams are both very vivid and intense. During the most dream-filled phase of sleep- REM – our body produces chemicals that keep us paralyzed and unresponsive in sleep so that we do not get up and act out our dreams.

How Much Do You Know About the Human Brain?

Our brain is the most complex biological structure in the known universe—as it is often described. According to Gleiser (2013), it is estimated the human brain contains roughly 86 billion neurons. Those neurons are so closely connected to each other that together forms a network of Internet-like complexity enabling the information to travel at speeds of up to 200 miles per hour. It is so complex that it is capable of generating the highest level of consciousness and the mental processes by which we perceive, act, learn, and remember. Those 86 billion neurons power all of our thoughts, perceptions, memories, and our emotions—all products of our brains.

Richard Wingate, Editor-in-Chief of BrainFacts.org, said: “Unraveling the mysteries of the brain has the potential to impact every aspect of human experience and civilization.”

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