Humanity has been able to calculate the speed of most moving things such as bike, bus, train, ships, aircraft, birds, planets, asteroids, sound, electricity and speed of light to name a few. However, the one area where we are still to find a definitive answer is calculating the speed of thought. Scientists have been trying to quantify the speed of thought for more than two centuries now, but the results have been largely a mixed bag.
Why it’s so difficult to measure the speed of thought?
To measure the speed of anything, there has to be a starting and end point. This is the primary reason why measuring the speed of thought is so difficult. The human brain functions quite similar to a wired network where electrical signals travel from one node to another. In the human brain, this job is done by neurons. Scientists have discovered that neurons have different diameters and the speed at which they transmit electrical signals varies accordingly. For example, neurons with larger diameter will transmit signals faster as compared to that of a neuron with narrower diameter. Thoughts can also pass though millions of neurons, which further complicates the task of measuring the speed of thought.
What we have calculated so far?
With our existing tools and technology, scientists have been able to calculate the speed at which neurons transmit signals. Please note that this is not equal to measuring the speed of thought, as neurons are just part of the overall network. Thoughts are processed by various other subsystems in the brain, which still remain a mystery.
Scientists have calculated that speed of electrical signals in myelinated neurons with large diameter is in the range of 70-120 meters per second. That’s about 250 to 435 kilometers per hour. In comparison, the speed is much slower in case of unmyelinated neurons with small diameter. These types of neurons can be seen in pain receptors and they carry signals at the speed of 0.5 to 2 meters per second.
So, we do have an idea about the speed at which neurons transmit signals, but calculating the speed of thought remains a challenge. Another thing is that the speed of thought may vary depending on the situation. For example, thoughts work quicker when we touch a hot object, as compared to the time when we are trying to devise a new business strategy. Similarly, there are various other situations that we encounter on a daily basis, where the speed of our thoughts might vary dramatically. Until we have better tools and technology, measuring the speed of thought will remain a conundrum for all inquisitive folks out there.