The Durk Pearson & Sandy Shaw®
Life Extension NewsTM
Volume 19 No. 6 • July 2016


THE SPEED OF THOUGHT

Speeding through the universe,
Thinking is the best way to travel.

—from The Best Way To Travel by The Moody Blues

A paper has reported an attempt to compare the “speed of thought” for brains to that of digital computers. (Nagarajan, 2008) The comparative data are as of 2008, so may be considerably different now. Computers are certainly much faster and even some brains may be faster, depending upon such things as increasing the brain’s myelin content, which speeds the transmission of information in the brain (for more on this, see next section below).

While the brain’s basic unit is the neuron, that of the computer is the transistor. At the time this paper was published, “modern very large scale integrated (VLSI) microprocessor circuits” were said to “have about a million transistors per square millimeter of chip area.” In the brain, on the other hand, the smallest computing element that processes information is the neuronal synapse. The “grey matter of most brain regions contains about 10 to the fifth synapses per microliter, a value not so different from the volume density of transistors.” (Nagarajan, 2008)

After supposing that “each neuron carries out an instruction each time it produces a nerve impulse” and that the neocortex contains about 10 to the tenth neurons, the resulting calculation indicates that the modern microprocessor would provide 100 fold less instructions per second than the brain. So, the computer (at that time) was calculated to be 100 times slower than the brain, even though it had a much faster processor speed because the brain contains so many synapses.

Reference

Nagarajan and Stevens. How does the speed of thought compare for brains and digital computers? Curr Biol. 18(17):R756-8 (2008).

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