You’re a Dim Bulb (And I mean that in the best possible way)

By Carl Zimmer | March 23, 2006 4:56 pm

bulb150.jpgI have a fondness for collecting brain lore–memes about the wonders of the human brain that race around the world for decades. The classic of brain lore is the “ten-percent myth.” As I wrote here, people often claim we only use ten percent of our brain, implying that we’d be supergeniuses if we could just switch on the rest. But that’s just based on a misinterpretation of some studies in the 1930s. Actually, the energy consumed by the cortex is only enough to power one percent of its neurons at any time.

In a press release descibing the work of Stanford bioengineer Kwabena Boahen, I stumbled on another meme:

According to Boahen, the brain is capable of performing 10 quadrillion (that’s 10 to the 16th) “calculations,” or synaptic events, per second using only 10 watts of power. At this rate, he says, a computer as powerful as the human brain would require 1 gigawatt of power.

I searched for the origin of this meme, and discovered Paul Valery, an early 20th century poet and essayist. He declared:

The ultimate “computer,” our own brain, uses only ten watts of power — one-tenth the energy consumed by a hundred-watt bulb.

It’s a claim that falls in that gray zone, the intersection of cool and crazy. So to see if it was actually true, I asked Bill Leonard, an expert on the evolution of human brains at Northwestern University. He responded thusly:

This is really interesting. The 10 watt estimate looks pretty close to being correct — perhaps a bit on a the low side, but certainly in the ballpark.

In terms of calories, here is how the 10 watts translate:

10 watts = 10 joules/sec = 207 kcal/day for the brain

At 200-210 kcals, this is enough energy to support a brain of about 1000 grams, at the low end of the modern human range.

For an average size human brain — 1300 -1400 grams — the costs would be a bit higher — between 250-300 kcal/day. However, this would only up the “wattage” to about 15.

So there you go. One urban myth survives the cold scrutiny of reason! Pass it on in the full confidence that it’s true (not to mention amazing).


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The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.


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