This I Believe

John - Hanover, New Hampshire
Entered on September 1, 2006
Age Group: 30 - 50

I believe in the limitless abilities of the human mind.

As a brain scientist specializing in the field of human brain mapping, I am frequently contacted by people in the media to comment on recent research findings concerning how the brain functions. During one such interview, a reporter inquired that if by using sophisticated brain scanners we might one day fully understand the human mind. “The brain is the most complicated object in the universe!”, I responded. Sometime later I received an email message from a gentleman who, having read my resultant quote, took me to task on my bold pronouncement: “Professor Van Horn,“, he chided, “How do you know the brain is the most complicated object in the universe?” He suggested that there are plenty of more complicated things in the cosmos, black holes, for example.

About this time, my oldest daughter, a third grader, became fascinated with the discovery of a potential tenth planet. Nicknamed “Xena”, it lurked in the outer reaches of the solar system, well beyond the orbit of Pluto. She devoured everything she could find on Xena, compiling a thick dossier of scientific articles, newspaper clippings, and web page printouts. She told us that Xena was bigger than Pluto and so either Pluto was not really a planet or that Xena was. Her mother and I were amazed – for being only 8 years old she was remarkably knowledgeable, could recite facts and figures on demand, largely the result of her insatiable curiosity. In her mind she had conceptualized this cold, distance orb, analyzed it, and categorized its context in our solar system. I sat and marveled at how smart my beautiful little girl was!

As I later thought about this person scolding me for being so bombastic, I realized that I do not actually know that the brain — this lump of stuff in our heads through which we experience love, joy, and sadness — is the most complex object in the universe. How could I possibly? But in observing my daughter’s growing intellect at work, her mind expanding in a cognitive “Big Bang”, I realized that I simply believe this to be true.

I believe in the human mind — that in its complexity and creativity exist the solutions to society’s ills. I believe in its capacity for new ideas and the mental discipline that is required to carry them out. Global warming can be reversed, for instance, if we just put our minds to it. I believe in art and in science – the universally appreciated outcomes of clever and dedicated thought.

As a scientist, I strive for objectivity, rigor, and work hard to resist embellishment. But in this instance, as a father watching his young daughter grow, I believe that Emily Dickinson was right – the brain is wider than the sky, deeper than the sea, and is “just the weight of God”. The power of the human intellect is the strongest force – more powerful than any black hole, able to shed light on the remotest of things. When the mind is successfully harnessed, by the young or the old, it is capable of overcoming any attempts to restrain it. The human brain is the most complex object in the universe. This I believe.