Jose Drost-Lopez

More brain connections than stars in the universe? No, not even close.

In Reality Check on September 10, 2010 at 11:35 pm

Our observable universe is huge. Make that really huge. So if you have ever read that our brain connections outnumber the stars in the universe (perhaps here or from this book), I hope you frowned in skepticism.

Cosmic Microwave Background map of the universe

Here are the real numbers:

Neurons (rough overestimate for adults): 10^11, or 100 billion

Synapses (based on 1000 per neuron estimate): 10^14, or 100 trillion

Stars (estimate for observable universe): 7 x 10^22; that’s 70 sextillion!

For every brain synapse (“connection”) we have, there are (at least) 700 million (700,000,000) stars somewhere out there. In other words, the number of stars per human synapse is about the number of people in Europe. Only if we count up the synapses of all the people alive (10^21) do we get a number comparable to the star count.

How could confusion arise on such a whopping difference? The mistake is clear in my first link above (“Cool Brain Facts”). The site assumes that most stars are in our galaxy, the Milky Way. That’s monumentally incorrect–our galaxy is unexceptional (star-wise or otherwise) among the approximately 100 billion galaxies within detectable range. On the bright side, this fact suggests an easy correction for our myth:

The number of synapses in the human brain is larger than the number of galaxies in the observable universe. Also, there are more synapses in an average human brain than there are stars in our Milky Way galaxy.

The core of the Milky Way. Our solar system is a microscopic spec of dust in there.

Let me clarify that the brain is a magnificent organ no matter how you spin the numbers. As early as two millenniums ago Hippocrates realized its importance: “from the brain, and from the brain only, arise our pleasures, joy, laughter and jests, as well as our sorrows, pains, griefs, and tears.” But no matter the intricacy of our brains, let’s not belittle the majestic scale of the cosmos.

  1. Reblogged this on peakmemory and commented:
    I was reading Sondra Kornblattt’s “A Better Brain at Any Age” and came across this quotation: “There are more connections in your brain than there are stars in the universe.” This seemed obviously false to me. With a little Internet searching, I found this very good refutation.

  2. […] the brain might not have more connections than stars in the universe (sorry guys), it is still complex. In fact, someone I respect defined a neuroscientist as “someone who […]

  3. There are more connections in all the human brains combined than there are stars in the universe is what the origin should have been. All humans combined it is 700 sextillion versus the approximated 70 sextillion stars

  4. You are ignoring the fact that “synapses” are NOT the only connections between cells. There are virtual, invisible, and instantaneous “connections” between vastly separated points in the brain. And this does not include connections provided by the corpus callosum.
    This has been known for a very long time.
    See: “Brain Yields New Clues On Its Organization For Language”
    By SANDRA BLAKESLEE
    Published: September 10, 1991
    NY TIMES
    http://www.nytimes.com/1991/09/10/science/brain-yields-new-clues-on-its-organization-for-language.html

  5. The quote goes “there are more connects in the human brain than stars in the galaxy”
    The galaxy is much smaller than the universe. That’s the way I heard it at least.

  6. […] More brain connections than stars in the galaxy? Not even close – Decode The Mind […]

  7. […] And the synapses in a single brain number more than the number of galaxies in the observable universe, and more the stars contained in the Milky Way galaxy!!!  Tell me that happened on accident.  Go […]

  8. Wrong. You can’t just count synapses. This concept refers to number of ways to connect. For example, the most beautiful rich colored, high resolution photograph on your computer screen is made of 3 code generated colors only. Yet, millions, even billions of colors are generated from 3 colors. Now, instead of 3 basic units, go back, do the calculation for 100 million basic units

  9. Wrong. You can’t just count synapses. This concept refers to number of ways to connect. For example, the most beautiful rich colored, high resolution photograph on your computer screen is made of 3 code generated colors only. Yet, millions, even billions of colors are generated from 3 colors.
    Now, instead of 3 basic units, you have to count the synapses on each nerve ending, and count the number of potential connections. which is going to be about in the hundreds or thousands per neuron. Then there are interconnections between multiple neurons and the huge number of possible combinations.

  10. Observable by human optical is relative to active synapses in brain at that time. When the brain begins to recognize its reflection more connections appear right before the human eye or experience. Optical illusion? No. Even in well lit suburb? Yes.

  11. My understanding is that the above article is correct with respect to “actual” connections and mathematically incorrect with respect to “potential” connections.

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