If the Human Brain Were So Simple That We Could Understand It, We Would Be So Simple That We Couldn’t

Lyall Watson? George Edgin Pugh? Emerson M. Pugh? Ken Hill?

brain09Dear Quote Investigator: The European Union has launched a ten year scientific venture called the Human Brain Project to build a large-scale neural simulation of the brain. Google has hired the top computer scientist and inventor Ray Kurzweil who has espoused a strategy of reverse-engineering the brain to help build systems with artificial intelligence. These goals are audacious, but I am reminded of a logic-twisting skeptical remark:

If the human brain were so simple that we could understand it, we would be so simple that we couldn’t.

This notion has been attributed to new age biologist Lyall Watson, physicist George Edgin Pugh, and his father Emerson M. Pugh. Would you please search for its origin?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence known to QI appeared in the 1977 book “The Biological Origin of Human Values” by George Edgin Pugh who was a nuclear physicist and the president of a company called Decision-Science Applications. The statement was used as a chapter epigraph with a footnote that specified an ascription to Emerson M. Pugh who was the father of the author. Both the father and son were physicists, and Emerson was a professor at The Carnegie Institute of Technology: 1

If the human brain were so simple
That we could understand it,
We would be so simple
That we couldn’t.

Emerson M. Pugh *
* Author’s note: Quote from my father around 1938.

The claim in the footnote pushed the date of the quotation’s formulation back to the 1930s, but QI has not yet found any published evidence before 1977.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In January 1979 the “Brain Mind Bulletin” published an article about a symposium that had been held in New York City about New Dimensions of Consciousness. Lyall Watson who wrote books about supernatural phenomena delivered a talk, and he employed the adage. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 2

Biologist Lyall Watson, author of Supernature, described what he called “the Catch-22 of the biology of consciousness. If the human brain were so simple that we could understand it, we would be so simple that we couldn’t!”

The excerpt above linked the saying to Watson, but QI conjectures that Watson’s remark was derived directly or indirectly from Emerson M. Pugh.

In 1980 a symposium on music teaching and research held in Bowling Green, Ohio included a paper by Thomas A. Regelski who repeated the comment made by Watson: 3

Biologist Lyall Watson, at a recent symposium on Consciousness, described what he called “the Catch-22 of the biology of consciousness. If the human brain were so simple that we could understand it, we would be so simple that we couldn’t!”

The quotation from Lyall was accompanied with a footnote that pointed to the “Brain Mind Bulletin”. The volume number, issue number, and page number in the note were all accurate; but the year was incorrectly specified as 1978 instead of 1979.

In 1984 a collection of essays by the Polish philosopher Henryk Skolimowski was published under the title “The Theatre of the Mind: Evolution in the Sensitive Cosmos”. He ascribed the adage to Watson: 4

Perhaps the relationship between the simple and the complex is more complex than our language can convey. Perhaps the simplicity of this relationship will reveal itself when we become more complex, in that sense, that is, in which Lyall Watson talks about the brain: “If our brain were so simple that we could understand it, we would be so simple that we couldn’t.”

The connection to Pugh was not forgotten. In 1989 a multi-author scientific article about neurotransmitter control printed the adage and credited Emerson Pugh although the thumbnail description of Pugh was inaccurate: 5

As it was succinctly put by the British philosopher, Emerson Pugh, “If the human brain were so simple that we could understand it, we would be so simple that we couldn’t.”

In June 1989 the saying appeared as the solution of a syndicated newspaper puzzle called Cryptoquote: 6

Yesterday’s Cryptoquote: IF THE HUMAN BRAIN WERE SO SIMPLE THAT WE COULD UNDERSTAND IT. WE WOULD BE SO SIMPLE THAT WE COULDN’T.
— EMERSON PUGH

In 1995 an article in the journal “Revue économique” included a shortened version of the saying which was placed between quotation marks, but no attribution was given: 7

“If the brain were so simple that we could understand it, we wouldn’t.”

In 2006 the book “Rhythms of the Brain” by Gyorgy Buzsaki printed a version that used a slightly different phrasing; this instance was attributed to someone named Ken Hill: 8

If the brain were simple enough for us to understand it, we would be too simple to understand it. —Ken Hill

In 2008 “The Guardian” published an obituary of Lyall Watson and ascribed the adage to him: 9

He had a flair for vivid phrases, and, in particular, a sharp eye for the paradoxes of life. He once remarked that “if the brain were so simple we could understand it, we would be so simple we couldn’t.”

In 2014 the saying was posted to the subreddit called “Quotes” where it was attributed to Ken Hill: 10

“If the brain were simple enough for us to understand it, we would be too simple to understand it.” -Ken Hill

stumbled upon this today. as a cog-neuro grad student, this thought crosses my mind quite often 🙂

In conclusion, this saying should be credited to the physicist Emerson M. Pugh based on the testimony of his son George Edgin Pugh in the 1977 citation. Lyall Watson helped to popularize the expression, but he did not coin it.

Image Notes: Color-coded picture of brain lobes based on an image from “Gray’s Anatomy”; accessed via Wikimedia Commons. Picture of brain with words such as “feel”, “now”, and “attend” from johnhain at Pixabay.

(Great thanks to Helge Holden whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.Special thanks to the kind librarians of the Linscheid Library of East Central University and the B. L. Fisher Library of Asbury Theological Seminary for help accessing the 1979 citation. Also thanks to Professor Charles Doyle of the University of Georgia for help accessing the 1980 citation.)

Notes:

  1. 1977, The Biological Origin of Human Values by George Edgin Pugh, (Chapter 7: Mysteries of the Mind, epigraph and footnote), Quote Page 154, Basic Books, New York. (Verified on paper)
  2. 1979 January 1, Brain Mind Bulletin, Volume 4, Number 4, ‘Consciousness is the primary reality,’ Nobel physicist tells N.Y. symposium, Start Page 3, Quote Page 3, Published by Interface Press, Los Angeles, California. (Verified with scans; thanks to the Linscheid Library of East Central University in Ada, Oklahoma)
  3. 1980, Contributions to Symposium/80 the Bowling Green State University Symposium on Music Teaching and Research, Article: The Bee, The Ant, or the Spider?–Models for Music Research and music Education Author: Thomas A. Regelski, Start Page 1, Quote Page 9, Publisher: Bowling Green State University, Bowling Green, Ohio. (Verified with scans; thanks to Charles Doyle and the University of Georgia library system)
  4. 1984, The Theatre of the Mind: Evolution in the Sensitive Cosmos by Henryk Skolimowski, Chapter 5: Teilhard and Soleri, Start Page 44, Quote Page 47, Quest Book: The Theosophical Publishing House, Wheaton, Illinois. (Google Books Preview)
  5. 1989, Perspectives in Behavioral Medicine: Eating, Sleeping, and Sex, Edited by Albert J. Stunkard and Andrew Baum, Article: Parallels in Neurotransmitter Control of Feeding and Memory, Article Authors: John E. Morley, James F. Flood, Arthur Cherkin, James E. Mitchell, Start Page 53, Quote Page 66, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Hillsdale, New Jersey. (Google Books Preview)
  6. 1989 June 1, The Palm Beach Post, Cryptoquote, Quote Page 7D, Column 1, West Palm Beach, Florida. (Newspapers_com)
  7. 1995 November, Revue économique, Volume 46, Number 6: L’économie hors de l’équilibre, Article: Adaptive Behavior, Market Processes and the Computable Approach, Author: Axel Leijonhufvud, (Footnote 2), Start Page 1497, Quote Page 1499, Published by Sciences Po University Press.(JSTOR) link
  8. 2006, Rhythms of the Brain by Gyorgy Buzsaki, (Epigraph to the Prelude section), Quote Page vii, Oxford University Press, New York. (Google Books Preview)
  9. 2008 July 22, The Guardian (Website), Lyall Watson: Scientist, zoologist, reporter and author of new age books by Dennis Barker, Guardian News and Media Limited, US and UK. (Accessed theguardian.com on March 5, 2016) link
  10. Website: Reddit, Subreddit: Quotes, Author: mobiuscydonia, Date on website: November 10, 2014, Subreddit description: Post your favorite quotes; current quotes, historic quotes, movie quotes, etcetera. (Accessed therestisnoise.com on March 5, 2016) link