If you place a section of the universe and a section of the nervous system in the brain next to each other, you will be able to see that they are similar to each other.
An Italian astrophysicist and a colleague who is a brain researcher, have for a couple of years now taken a closer look at something that several others have also been beaten by.
From their respective academic standpoints, the two researchers together have found several similarities between the brain and the universe. The results are summarized in a new research article in the journal Frontiers of Physics.
To put it bluntly: it’s not about the universe really being a giant brain.
But there may be other explanations.
Extremely complex systems
Both our brain and the universe are extremely complex systems.
Probably these are the two most complex systems we know over our heads.
Researchers have recently been able to estimate how many nerve cells (neurons) we have in the brain. In the important cerebellum, there will be around 69 billion of them.
There are at least 100 billion galaxies in the universe.
What researchers Franco Vazza (astrophysicist at the University of Bologna) and Alberto Feletti (brain researcher at the University of Verona) suggest is that physics can cause structures as completely different as our brains and the universe to organize in similar ways.
Digital illustration of the nervous system in the brain. (Image: adike / Shutterstock / NTB)
What role do water and dark matter play?
In their new study, Vazza and Feletti point to several common features of the brain and the universe.
It is not just about them being similar in the way they are organized with nodes – synapses in the brain / clusters of galaxies in the universe – and threads that go between these.
Astrophysicists now assume that only a small part of all the mass and energy in the universe is visible to us. Most of the universe probably consists of invisible dark mass or dark energy.
In our brain it is similar: Only about 30 percent of the brain mass are useful nerve cells. Most of our brain is apparently useless water.
The two scientists are now wondering whether the bag in the brain and the dark matter in the universe may play more important roles than we think. Perhaps it is due to water and dark matter, respectively, that the nerve cells in the brain and galaxies in the universe have organized themselves so similarly – in long threads that meet at nodes, what some also call nodes.
Many have been struck by the similarity between the brain and the universe. This image is a computer model showing a large number of galaxies, organized in threads and clusters. Does dark matter play a role? (Image: UCL Mathematical and Physical Sciences / Andrew Pontzen and Fabio Governato / EU Horizon)
When one of the Italian scientists calculated oscillations in the neural network and in the cosmic network, he also found something the researchers now point to as striking similarities.
The oscillations in the brain are on a scale from micrometers up to 0.1 millimeters, while the cosmic oscillations range from 5 million to 500 million light-years. So we are talking about quite large differences in distance.
Nevertheless, the oscillations in the neural network and in the universe are clearly different from the oscillations in a number of other substances and materials we know that also organize themselves according to physical laws, such as water and the leaves of a tree.
Fluctuations in the cerebellum, cerebellum, universe, clouds, leaves, plasma and water. (From the research article)
Vazza and Feletti also compared the average number of connections that each cluster or node in the brain and in the universe has out to the rest of the network. They found that in the brain there are on average between 4.6 and 5.4 such connections, while in the universe there are on average between 3.8 and 4.1 connections to the rest of the system.
– Once again, structural parameters showed us an unexpected similarity, says Alberto Feletti.
The two scientists are thus not trying to convince that the universe is in fact a giant brain. What they think points a lot in the direction of is that both our brain and the universe follow the same physical and mathematical laws. This in turn may be related to the fact that both are such complicated systems.
– It is probably about the connections in the two networks developing according to the same physical principles, Feletti says. At the same time he reminds us that we are talking about two systems with very many obvious differences.
It’s about fractals
We are becoming increasingly aware that the universe was created in accordance with the laws of physics.
In our brains, of course, we think of biological processes as the most important thing. Evolution has given us a brain that is best adapted to the environment around us.
But our brains are also made up of atoms and molecules. Exactly the same is the universe.
In both places, these can – regardless of whether the distances are micrometers or light years – go together in very detailed geometric shapes.
These forms are called fractals.
Leaves on trees, clouds in the sky and running water in rivers also form such geometric shapes. Snow crystals are perhaps the most typical fractals. Even the way cities grow beyond can have fractal features.
The same can the spread of the virus during a pandemic.
Kristoffer Rypdal is a professor of mathematics and statistics at UiT – Norwegian Arctic University. Like the Italian researchers, he is concerned with how self-organization arises in complex systems.
– Both physical systems such as the universe and biological systems such as the brain drive self-organization. But in order to achieve this self-organization, it is required that these systems are in contact with something else, Rypdal points out.
He mentions sunlight as a good example of something else that contributes to self-organization. Through photosynthesis, sunlight creates life on the earth’s surface and an enormous order in something that could have been just disorder.
Vazza and Feletti draw in the water of the brain and the dark energy of the Universe – both seemingly insignificant – as what might create order in the two places. Maybe water and dark matter are what make the patterns in the brain’s billions of nerve cells and the universe’s billions of galaxies look the way they do – and look alike.
Much in nature are fractal forms
– This sounds like a speculative idea. But it is true that biological objects that grow and develop can only do so in relation to something else. There must be something else there for forms to form in chaos, says Rypdal.
At the same time, the UiT professor points out that a great deal in nature forms fractal forms. The trees are experts in this. Not only are the leaves of the deciduous trees fractal, so are the branches that grow outward from the trunk.
– The tree wants to get as much sunlight as possible to hit its leaves. The optimal shape is therefore a network of increasingly smaller branches that grow out of larger branches. At the same time, the tree wants to have the smallest possible volume. Therefore, the leaves of the tree are completely flat.
Researchers Vazza and Feletti have not discovered anything completely new. Many have seen this before them.
But they are brave enough to speculate and suggest that perhaps the two most complex systems we know – our brain and the universe – may have more similarities than just form.
Sources and references:
Vazza and A. Feletti: “The Quantitative Comparison Between the Neuronal Network and the Cosmic Web”, Frontiers in Physics, 16 November 2020. The article.