THERE ARE FAR MORE neurons packed into the expansive confines of a human skull than there are human bodies jostling together on this swirling sphere we call Earth. How many neurons is that exactly? Dedicate a few billion of your own brain cells, if you will, to imagining the colorful millions of Calcutta; add to them the commuters careening through Bangkok, the campesinos picking coffee in Guatemala, the workers packing computer chips in China, the unemployed squinting through the smog of Mexico City. Fire up a few more neurons and pull the nomads off the wind-scoured Mongolian plains, tease the monks from their frigid Himalayan caves, and entice the CEOs from their high-back leather chairs. Add in the Inuit men dreaming, right now, of whale breath rising above the curved horizon of the Arctic Ocean. Think of everyone you can, everyone on Earth. Squish them all together within the dark recesses of your mind. Once they’re all in there, stand back and take a good look at the muttering, grumbling, farting, groping, singing billions and multiply the multitude by 28.2. That, give or take several billion, is how many neurons make up the gelatinous pudding of each of our brains.
Sounds like a lot, no? But consider the neurons swimming around in the hulk of a sperm whale brain, which is almost six times heavier than our own. If Moby Dick had a brain too heavy for Mr. Melville to pick up, why are we writing books in search of life’s meaning while the whales are searching for another squid? Turns out, in the intelligence game, size isn’t everything. It appears (it’s not that easy to see this stuff) the widely spaced neurons in some regions of the human brain allow for more connections than in other brains. With hundreds of trillions of synapses, each containing upward of a thousand molecular-scale “switches,” a single human brain has more connections than all the computers, routers, and internet connections in existence, which is almost enough connections to actually comprehend such a gargantuan number.
Albert Einstein, employing his exquisite set of neurons, said, “There are only two infinite things: the universe and human stupidity. And I am not sure about the universe.” So despite the brain’s miraculous capacity, it seems Albert is suggesting that any single human on their own, whether ordained by the Pope or graduated from Harvard, has no better chance of understanding the scale and trajectory and meaning of our world than a single neuron has of understanding the rules of football.
The most creative and agile minds, the scientists tells us, are the ones that have maximized potential hookups, flexing their connective prowess by passing peptides through ion pumps with a speed and finesse beyond the wildest dreams of the smartest phone. So what can we do, as a single and fleeting flash in the vast and growing jumble of humanity, to enhance our collective creativity and agility (and don’t you know we need to)?
Maybe the answer is as simple as this: to make like a neuron and be as connected as possible. While brain cells find each other in a sea of chemical soup, the best human connections are made through the swirl of humor and wonder, grief and affection, tenderness and awe, gratitude and music. Whether you live in Kansas or Kotzebue, the best work we can do is to bond with parents and children, ancient cedar trees and just-hatched mayflies, house sparrows and house flies, Muslims and Mormons, clouds and cranes. We can’t know in what direction our collective consciousness is reaching, but we can laugh and ponder, cry and hug, feel rain on our cheeks, hear wind in the leaves, make music with our neighbors, and do our tiny part to expand the awareness of the muttering, grumbling, singing billions.