Sometime during the last months of grad school I was in the office late, polishing off one too many coffees, and dipping into my emergency ramen noodle stores. I was searching for that elusive (and perhaps illusory) moment of clarity that, one hopes, arrives to propel a manuscript forward. But, the long hours and coffee caused my mind to wander into distant realms of science. I had just finished teaching about neurons and action potentials and brain activity in my physiology class (100 billion neurons, forming 100 trillion neural connections—more connections than stars in our galaxy—sparking up right now allowing you to think this!) and I had a cool thought:
I am converting these cheap noodles directly into science and new insight. I am a biochemical machine that converts packs of 10 cent fake noodles into knowledge.
And then, the natural follow-up: at what rate? What is the cost of a thought? How many noodles does my brain burn to construct a statement? A paper? A dissertation?
Now that I do not have a dissertation submission deadline looming, I have some time to explore these thoughts—thankfully while burning some higher-grade fuel than emergency ramen! Warning: the calculations that follow are extremely ‘back of the envelope,’ and should be taken with a heaping helping of salt and skepticism. This is just a fun exploration.
How much energy is burned in a thought?
First, let’s gather some parameters. How much energy does the brain use? The short answer is: an incredible amount. Despite only accounting for 2% of the body’s weight, the brain uses 20% of the body’s energy (that figure is for an adult, in newborns it is 44%!!) The brain uses 2–3 times the amount of energy that the heart uses.
[Aside: the brain is extremely efficient at what it does—processing information using orders of magnitude less energy than the best supercomputers.]
So, let’s say that the brain uses 20% of the body’s basal metabolic rate, and the basal metabolic rate is 1500 kcal/day. That means the brain uses about 300 kcal/day, or 0.0035 kcal/second.
The next question is: what is a thought? How much time does one take, and what proportion of the brain’s energy is devoted to “thinking”? I don’t know! But, does anyone know? I don’t know that either. Since it is my blog, I am at liberty to define a thought. Let’s say, for the sake of argument (and feel free to argue in the comments) 100% of the brain’s energy is required for “a thought,” and all thoughts are created equal. And let’s also say that a thought is a statement, and that it takes as much time as one would take to think or read a sentence. For instance, here is a thought:
“Wow, I am thinking this thought about thinking; this is one of the things that hydrogen atoms do given 13.82 billion years of cosmic evolution, and it’s super cool.”
How long did it take to think that specific (extended) thought? More than a couple of seconds, less than 10? Let’s say a substantial thought takes 5 seconds. At 0.0035 kcal/second, that’s about 0.02 kcal/thought!
So, how many ramen noodles are burned for a thought? At 400 kcal per block, and 150 noodles per block, we have 2.67 kcal per noodle. Assuming the average noodle is 33 cm long, we find that there are 0.08 kcal/cm of noodle—and every thought burns about 0.25 cm of ramen noodle! Your brain is incredibly efficient—no wonder that future AI are always super jealous and vindictive in sci-fi movies.
Now we can readily convert thinking-time into calories, and content creators can register their influence in energy. For instance, if 100 people read this blog post, consuming 5 minutes of calories thinking through the content, then about 100 calories would be burned on my words. 400 people and an entire block of ramen has been consumed by my words.
I wonder how much ramen has been burned by Shakespeare?
Very cool. Sometimes a person strikes me as too “tired” to think but with plenty of mental steam left to worry or joke or yack about the game. It would be interesting to see a fun list of mental activities according to their pseudo energy consumption. Would an “unconscious fear” rank high or low?
I need some chocolate.
Hi Brock, thanks for the comment and the ‘thoughts’!
Check out this article, that I came across while researching my post: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/thinking-hard-calories/
It seems that mental activities one might consider more difficult may not demand more energy. However, stress does eat up energy, so if one was in a stressful situation associated with difficult mental tasks (exams, work, etc.), one may become fatigued! I imagine the “unconscious fear” you mention, which sounds rather stressful, would eat up more energy than yacking about the game!
The article looks good. Thanks.
You should keep all your blog stats not in terms of number of visitors/readers but in number of ramen noodles burned. I know that I’m glad to have spent 1/3rd of a ramen noodle to read and think about this.
I found your article researching the amount of energy thoughts toward others expends and how we have to use each day… ie; to put effort into ‘loving’ another person vs ourselves. I’m certainly using your calcs and scientific American article youbshared. Thank you!
Brock, this was an interesting article. However, I don’t think the Brain can spend 100% on a single thought for 3-4 seconds. Think of all the background activity that goes on 24×7. Somehow you need to subtract out that activity. It’s great you took a try at this. I was looking for this answer too.
Could the brain use a constant rate of energy, and simply slow or shut down another process while it’s working on the “thought”. Maybe like a car that shuts down it’s Air conditioning when it needs the energy devoted to a speed increase to pass someone.