Science Tropes: “The Human Brain is the Most Complex Structure/Object in the Known Universe”

double brain

Professor Tropzisch stands alone on the far end of the lab as his colleagues trickle in the main door for a hastily announced announcement. His brow thickens with sweat as he ponders the enormity of what he has done, doubling the complexity of the most complex object in the entire universe. This would surely guarantee his place in the history books. Tropzisch turns around with a flourish, a gust of air from the ventilation unit blowing his tattered lab coat around him. “Colleagues, the ramifications of what I show you today will surely have ramifications that ripple throughout time for ages to come.” He pauses for effect before reaching both hands into the lab refrigerator. A gasp breaks the silence as he reveals the origin of the excitement. “I give you the double brain

It is often repeated that the brain is the most complex object in the universe (see examples below). On its own it seems quite self-important and anthropocentric to claim the hardware most humans run on as some kind of über-computer. Furthermore, how can an object that is itself a component of higher networks and systems be the most complex object in the universe? That is like claiming a steering wheel is the most complex machine on the highway.

Surrounding science is a sub-culture not markedly different from any other, and fully susceptible to perpetuating memes which amount to nonsense, like the super-brain claim in the title. Is this an attempt to make science more “accessible” by replacing accuracy with sensationalism? It may not amount to much in terms of overall impact, if, after all, those of us that know better, know better. But I think this is a very dim view of the outlook for human society and the role of science therein. When I see an advertisement, I expect to be lied to. The same shouldn’t apply to statements made by neuroscientists.

Some instances of this trope’s infectivity:

Read this page. The trope appears often on this “Neuroscience for kids” collection of quotes.

See how creationists co-opt the statement here

Chapter 4, pg. 154 of Advanced Biophotonics from CRC press (this book is also from the future, as the copyright is claimed for 2014)

This Science Friday episode

2015/Dec/21 EDIT: Added an extra introduction

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