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How fast is the speed of thought? - Seena Mathew

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Your mortal enemy has captured you and hooked you up to a bizarre experiment. He’s extended your nervous system with one very long neuron to a target about 70 meters away. At some point, he’s going to fire an arrow. If you can then think a thought to the target before the arrow hits it, he’ll let you go. So who wins that race? Seena Mathew examines the speed of thought.

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About TED-Ed Animations

TED-Ed Animations feature the words and ideas of educators brought to life by professional animators. Are you an educator or animator interested in creating a TED-Ed Animation? Nominate yourself here »

Meet The Creators

  • Educator Seena Mathew
  • Director Andrew Foerster
  • Narrator Bethany Cutmore-Scott
  • Sound Designer Devin Polaski
  • Director of Production Gerta Xhelo
  • Editorial Director Alex Rosenthal
  • Producer Bethany Cutmore-Scott
  • Script Editor Cella Wright
  • Fact-Checker Jennifer Nam
  • See more
Additional Resources for you to Explore
Every day our brain helps us avoid dangers and think through complex problems. The brain processes our world through signals known as action potentials. Our increasing knowledge of how action potentials help in computing images and dispensing information may eventually lead us towards determining the speed of thought.

Our brain is made up of networks of neurons that send signals through action potentials (AP), which you can learn more about from this video from the Harvard Extension School. At any given moment, a neuron may be receiving signals or inputs from hundreds of other neurons around it. Signals sent though APs can occur at different speeds depending on the myelination of the axon. For instance, increased conduction velocity as a result of myelination. We can increase the speed of responses through practice and repetition. When we are learning to read, we think through every letter and pause to formulate the sound associated with it. Through practice, we can read words through sight recognition as quickly as a few tenths of a second. This is one way our brain learns to read. After learning new words, the brain sees them as pictures.

 Most of our rapid responses become instincts or quick reflexive movements. Imagine a batter waiting at the plate for a ball approaching as fast as 90 miles per hour in as little as four tenths of a second. The batter must visualize the ball approaching, identify the location and speed it is approaching and then determine whether or not to swing at the approaching ball. All of these thought processes can take up to 400 milliseconds leaving little time for error or extra thought. These responses become faster as we practice and repeat the act of hitting the ball.

 What if that fastball approaching has hit us in the past? When we are faced with a threatening or fearful stimulus, we can trigger activity in the limbic system. Some areas activated include the amygdala, where emotions like fear are perceived, the hippocampus, where memories are formed and recalled, and the inferior parietal lobe, which is involved in the interpretation of sensory information. Evolutionarily, fear is beneficial as it helps protect us from dangerous situations. Read this article to learn how our brain processes fear. The hippocampus, is our memory center and helps us remember a fearful stimulus if we encounter it again. We can also specifically encode contextual fear memories in our hippocampal-amygdala circuit, providing a specialized memory.

 Neurons are constantly communicating and coordinating the experiences of our daily lives. They allow us to breathe deeply, to read these words, and to hit a fastball approaching us. As we learn more about the intricacies of the brain, we get closer to quantifying the speed of thought. Perhaps you will be the one to solve this age-old question.

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Create and share a new lesson based on this one.

About TED-Ed Animations

TED-Ed Animations feature the words and ideas of educators brought to life by professional animators. Are you an educator or animator interested in creating a TED-Ed Animation? Nominate yourself here »

Meet The Creators

  • Educator Seena Mathew
  • Director Andrew Foerster
  • Narrator Bethany Cutmore-Scott
  • Sound Designer Devin Polaski
  • Director of Production Gerta Xhelo
  • Editorial Director Alex Rosenthal
  • Producer Bethany Cutmore-Scott
  • Script Editor Cella Wright
  • Fact-Checker Jennifer Nam
  • See more