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Beyond mind-blowing—is our brain a mirror of the universe?

By Elizabeth Rayne
Mars Attacks!

There is a whole universe in your brain, but did you ever think that your brain could be a reflection of the vast universe out there?

The network of neurons in the brain and network of galaxies in the cosmos might actually be reflections of each other. This is what you get when you put the minds of an astrophysicist and a neurosurgeon together. Besides being two of the most complex systems in nature, the number of neurons in your brain is eerily close to the number of galaxies in the observable universe. Neurons form in long filaments or nodes between filaments, just like galaxies, and there is mass or energy that has seemingly passive role in both—water in the brain versus dark energy in the void of space.

Unlikely as it seems, astrophysicist Franco Vazza and neurosurgeon Alberto Feletti, who recently published a study in Frontiers in Physics, have merged their knowledge of the brain and the cosmos into something with the potential to advance both sciences further than they have ever gone. This study and the work it inspires in the future could revolutionize both cosmology and neurosurgery.

“Our research tries to show that with shared statistical tools, both networks can be analyzed in a quantitative way, and we found a good degree of structural similarity across a broad range of scales,” Vazza told SYFY WIRE. “Despite the obvious differences in their internal interactions, complex networks do tend to evolve according to similar laws, in order to economize on energy and fill space in a more efficient way—but that’s just the start of the quest.”

The human brain and the structure of the universe are two of the most complex systems in nature. Everything in our brains is interconnected, from the molecular level to networks of neurons and other cells that create even more complicated structures. So is everything in the universe (at least what we can see of it). It started at the molecular level when the Big Bang went off like a firework out of nowhere, and those molecules created larger molecules that kept accumulating and eventually became stars, planets, asteroids, comets, and other objects born from swirling discs of gas and dust. Many of these objects became their own star systems, and groups of star systems formed entire galaxies.

Now think about this. There is a network of about 69 billion neurons in your brain. In the observable universe, there are at least 100 billion galaxies. 70 percent of the brain is water while the same percentage of interstellar stuff is dark energy. By studying the spectral density, or how power in a signal as opposed to its frequency, Vazza and Feletti found out that fluctuations in the cosmic web are on the same scale as those distributed within the network of neurons in the cerebellum, which mostly powers voluntary movements, balance, coordination and posture.

While the proportions might not always be exact, they are still somewhat scary. There still is one enormous difference despite all these possibly unsettling mirror images.

“The biggest difference between our brains and the universe is how they process their information content,” Vazza said. “In the case of the cosmic web, this is the 3D structure of galaxies. In the human brain, it is recorded through the local connectivity of neurons, and at a highly different speed. Some qualitative estimates suggest that the human brain has a computing power about 10^17 times faster than the cosmic web - meaning that the local organization of the human brain can be changed extremely faster than what galaxies can do."

Whether that is more fascinating or even scarier is hard to say. It is impossible to deny that both networks, the one in our heads and the one above our heads, are both organizations of clusters and nodes, whether those happen to be made of molecules and neurons or star systems and galaxies. Vazza ran simulations revealed, among everything else that makes our brains reflections of something much larger and almost unfathomable, something else unreal. There is actually less similarity between the universe and a single galaxy, or the brain and a single neuron, than there is between the brain and the universe as systems.

Finding parallels between the brain and the final frontier has shed light on things that each branch of science can borrow from the other. The similarities between such complex networks could could also mean incredible discoveries, because if something about the universe may have implications for something in the brain or vice versa, there could be a major scientific advancement depending on the results of simulations and experiments.

“Our work exposes the way in which such different systems (indeed sitting at the opposite extremes of cosmic scales) may evolve according complex ways in which physical laws combine to evolve macro objects, or in this case networks of event,” said Vazza. “We hope this will trigger new research in the near future.”

That should sufficiently blow your mind.

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