How Your Brain Resembles the Cosmic Web

Cosmic web

A simulated matter distribution of the cosmic web (left) vs the observed distribution of neuronal bodies in the cerebellum (right). The neuronal bodies have been stained with clone 2F11 monoclonal antibody against neurofilaments.

Science is central to my life. As a kid inspired by the Apollo missions, the DNA helix, and Jacques Cousteau, I plowed through the encyclopedias at home, then through the school and public libraries, rewarded at last at age nine with my very own subscription to Scientific American. I was hooked, sponging up everything I could find on rocks, fossils, robots, atoms, planets, microbes and animals.

For me, the photographs packed a special punch. How incredible these images, yet real – organic patterns repeating themselves at vastly different scales, like the tiny spiral of a seashell recapitulated in the structure of a massive spiral galaxy.

Now, an innovative collaboration between an astronomer and a neuroscientist has produced an especially stunning result: when you chart the large-scale fluctuations in the distribution of galaxies in the visible universe, it closely matches the pattern of neuron fluctuations in the network of the human brain.

It’s hard to fathom the congruence between these two patterns, or any causal relationship between them, given the immense difference in scales – the neuron fluctuations occur in sub-millimeter dimensions, while galaxy distribution is measured in hundreds of millions of light-years.

The new report, The Strange Similarity of Neuron and Galaxy Networks, provides some fascinating insights. But first, it’s worth asking whether the results are simply an example of apophenia, the human brain’s proclivity for finding meaningful patterns in random shapes, the way we transform the arrangement of stars on the night sky into constellations resembling familiar animals and mythical heroes. A statistical technique called power spectrum analysis, which measures the strengths of structural fluctuations at different spatial scales, confirms these systems do indeed present quantitative similarities.

So what’s the connection? Let’s start with the universe. Today, when astronomers combine observations from ground-based and space-based telescopes to build a model of the large-scale structure of the universe – the cosmic web – it clearly shows dense strands of clusters of galaxies amidst immense voids of nothingness.

As explained by the report’s authors, Franco Vazza and Alberto Feletti:

“The balance between the accelerating expansion of the fabric of spacetime and the pull of self-gravity gives this network its spider-web-like pattern. Ordinary and dark matter condense into string-like filaments, and clusters of galaxies form at filament intersections, leaving most of the remaining volume basically empty. The resulting structure looks vaguely biological.”

Meanwhile, deep down near the back and bottom of your brain is a region called the cerebellum, which is responsible for movement, balance, and muscular coordination. What Vazza and Feletti have discovered is that the distribution of fluctuations in the cerebellum (at a scale of 0.1mm to 1.0mm) is reminiscent of the distribution of galaxies in the cosmic web. Also, at an even smaller scale around 10µ (microns), at the very limits of microscopic observation, they’ve found a similar match with the patterns found in the human cerebral cortex, where advanced cognition occurs.

Future research will focus on whether there’s also a dynamic similarity between the two domains, as researchers try to construct a model of how information flows across vastly different spatial and temporal scales.