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See Inside July 2011

The Limits of Intelligence

The laws of physics may well prevent the human brain from evolving into an ever more powerful thinking machine

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Santiago Ramón y Cajal, the Spanish Nobel-winning biologist who mapped the neural anatomy of insects in the decades before World War I, likened the minute circuitry of their vision-processing neurons to an exquisite pocket watch. He likened that of mammals, by comparison, to a hollow-chested grandfather clock. Indeed, it is humbling to think that a honeybee, with its milligram-size brain, can perform tasks such as navigating mazes and landscapes on a par with mammals. A honeybee may be limited by having comparatively few neurons, but it surely seems to squeeze everything it can out of them.

At the other extreme, an elephant, with its five-million-fold larger brain, suffers the inefficiencies of a sprawling Mesopotamian empire. Signals take more than 100 times longer to travel between opposite sides of its brain—and also from its brain to its foot, forcing the beast to rely less on reflexes, to move more slowly, and to squander precious brain resources on planning each step.

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