Posted by: Kenn Hermann | February 24, 2008

In Awe of the Brain’s Complexity

This past Monday Charlie Rose interviewed Susan Hockfield, the president of MIT. Prior to going to MIT, she was a noted neuro-scientist at Yale with a special focus on the development of the brain. As Charlie probed how and why she had given up her love of the laboratory for the challenges of administration, you could see that her intense curiosity in the brain still burned strong. At one point toward the end of the interview Charlie asked her what ‘big’ question she most wanted an answer to. After a brief pause to gather her thoughts she mused:

“I would love to know — I would love to know — how the brain, given the relatively small number of genes in the human genome, how do they, time after time, person after person, elaborate an organ [that] is as complex as the brain with such fidelity.” And then with sheer amazement in her voice, “what — what are the rules? How does this work? The complexity far exceeds anything we can calculate based on anything we know about the human genome.”

Thinking he was clarifying her meaning, Charlie offered “. . . anything we can calculate with all of the computer power we have.”

Hockfield made it clear that this was not at all what she meant: “. . . well, we don’t even know what all of the variables are yet.”

Since this exchange took only a few minutes in an interview focused on her vision for MIT and higher education in the US, it is dangerous to read more into it than she would have time to defend. Nonetheless, I would be most intrigued to hear her elaborate her understanding of the source of the brain’s complexity. What physiological layers have yet to be unraveled that will reveal the ‘how’ of the brain’s fidelity to its program? If computers — even the supercomputers at MIT — lack even the appropriate metric or relevant algorithm for calculating the brain’s complexity, where else might researchers look for answers? But aren’t these precisely the areas in which her very own Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT (and similar departments across the world) is investing its millions of research dollars? Where else to search, indeed.

There is more than enough grist in this brief exchange for a fruitful philosophical probing of the source of the brain’s ‘complexity’ — and of the meaning of the ‘science’ of the brain.


  1. just this morning on the way to work I heard an interview on Seattle’s NPR KUOW’s show Weekday. They were interviewing the author of “The History of the American Stomach”. He said that there are more neurons surrounding our stomach than there are neurons in our brain and spinal cord combined. news to me.

    Also I wanted to mention a book that Dave Schrader (and before him, Kurt Thompson) recommended to me. It’s called Parenting from the Inside Out. One of the authors, Daniel Siegel, is a neurobiologist. He and his co-author offer some amazing insights into how we connect with others, how we create meaning of our experiences, and how we heal. It’s a fascinating book that I would recommend to any parent.

    thanks kenn for your neural-pathway-creating thoughts and connections. dw

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