October 2, 2023


Infinity. An abstract concept that’s been both a puzzle and fascination for mathematicians, physicists, philosophers, and thinkers for centuries. Our everyday experiences don’t expose us to the boundless vastness of infinity. Therefore, understanding it becomes a task that even our remarkably sophisticated brains find challenging. This article delves into how the human brain grapples with the concept of infinity and the fascinating intersection of neuroscience, psychology, and mathematics.

Insights from Ancient Greek Philosophers

Greek philosophers have a rich history of exploring the concept of infinity, contributing significantly to the early understanding and ongoing discourse about the concept.

Zeno of Elea (c. 490–430 BC), a pre-Socratic philosopher, is known for his paradoxes, many of which deal with the concept of infinity. One of the most famous is the Dichotomy Paradox, which suggests that in order to reach any given point, one must first traverse half the distance, then half the remaining distance, and so on ad infinitum. Therefore, it seems logically impossible to ever reach the point, as there are an infinite number of halfway points to cross.

The paradox raises profound questions about the nature of infinity and our understanding of space and motion. It has been a topic of discussion for millennia, and solutions generally require the acceptance of infinity as a valid concept in some form.

Anaximander (c. 610–546 BC), another pre-Socratic philosopher, proposed an early cosmological model where the earth floats in ‘the infinite’ (apeiron). The apeiron, according to Anaximander, was the original source of all things and the ultimate place all things return to.

In contrast, Aristotle (384–322 BC) had a complicated relationship with the concept of infinity. He rejected the existence of actual infinities but accepted potential infinities. For instance, he agreed that we could always add one to any number, so the numbers are potentially infinite. However, he didn’t accept that this potential infinity represented a completed, actual infinite set.

For Aristotle, infinity was also deeply tied to his understanding of the divine. He believed the Prime Mover, or God, to be a sort of actual infinity – perfect, complete, and unchanging.

Thus, Greek philosophers had varying and complex views about infinity. Their ideas have influenced philosophical, scientific, and mathematical discussions about infinity and still resonate today in our ongoing attempts to understand this boundless concept.

Understanding Infinity:

The human brain has developed to understand the world through finite, physical, and tangible concepts. When it comes to processing the notion of infinity, a realm devoid of physical boundaries or quantifiable limits, the brain faces a unique challenge. It is much like trying to envision a color you’ve never seen or imagine a new sensory experience.

Grasping the Infinite in the Finite:

Interestingly, the difficulty doesn’t mean the brain is incapable of comprehending infinity. While our brains may struggle to visualize an endless expanse, they can understand infinity abstractly. We can comprehend the idea that numbers go on forever, or that the universe might not have an end, through the power of abstraction and logic. This indirect route offers a way for the brain to grapple with something it can’t directly visualize.

The paradox of understanding infinity lies in our capacity to understand it without fully visualizing it. Imagine trying to visualize a never-ending sequence of numbers. Our brain can’t see an infinite sequence because we’ve only experienced finite quantities. However, we can understand the concept logically – we can comprehend the fact that if we keep adding 1 to any number, we can do so indefinitely, and this gives us a theoretical grasp of infinity.

For instance, consider the mathematical series 1, 2, 3, 4, and so forth. The series is infinite because there’s no largest number—we can always add 1 to any number to get a larger number. This can be represented as:

1, 2, 3, …, n, n+1, …

Even though we cannot visualize an infinite set, we can understand its properties and the concept of endlessness.

Neuroscience and Infinity:

Recent advancements in neuroscience have given us insights into how our brain processes complex mathematical concepts like infinity. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) has revealed that when humans grapple with abstract mathematical concepts, specific areas of the brain become more active. When we try to understand abstract mathematical ideas, the parietal cortex, particularly the intraparietal sulcus, becomes active. This part of the brain is associated with number processing and spatial sense, among other functions. Particularly, the parietal cortex, a section of the brain that is associated with number estimation, spatial attention, and the manipulation of discrete quantities lights up, specifically the area known as the intraparietal sulcus. This suggests that while we might not be able to visualize infinity, our brains have evolved to engage with and understand this concept at a deeper, more abstract level.

The parietal lobe

The parietal lobe, a major division of the cerebral cortex, plays a crucial role in sensory integration, including spatial sense and navigation. Positioned above the temporal lobe, behind the frontal lobe, and adjacent to the central sulcus, the parietal lobe is an essential part of the brain’s architecture.

Anatomically Complex yet Integrated

The parietal lobe’s boundaries are determined by the central sulcus, which separates it from the frontal lobe; the parieto-occipital sulcus, separating it from the occipital lobe; and the lateral sulcus marking its boundary with the temporal lobe. The longitudinal fissure, meanwhile, bifurcates the two hemispheres of the brain.

Key areas within the parietal lobe include the postcentral gyrus (Brodmann area 3), which functions as the primary somatosensory cortical area, and the posterior parietal cortex, subdivided into the superior and inferior parietal lobules.

Functional Diversity

The parietal lobe carries out a wide range of functions. It is pivotal for integrating sensory information from various parts of the body, understanding numerical relationships, manipulating objects, and processing touch-related information. It also contributes to visuospatial processing.

The lobe’s functional diversity is further highlighted by its role in the dorsal stream of vision, the “where” and “how” pathway responsible for spatial vision and vision for action. The posterior parietal cortex receives somatosensory and visual input, thereby controlling movement of the arm, hand, and eyes.

Neuroscientific Investigations

Research on the posterior parietal cortex has shown that different regions represent different parts of space, giving us valuable insights into our understanding of spatial awareness. Moreover, the inferior parietal lobe has been linked to declarative memory processing, suggesting its involvement in recalling complex events and maintaining internal attention.

Clinical Implications

The parietal lobe’s functional importance is underlined by the implications of its damage. Lesions in this area can lead to sensory loss, spatial neglect, difficulties in complex movements, language disorders, and problems in reading or interpreting symbols. Unilateral damage to the right hemisphere can result in loss of imagery, visualization of spatial relationships, and neglect of left-side space and body. Conversely, left hemisphere damage can cause issues in mathematics, reading, writing, and understanding symbols.

In sum, the parietal lobe’s contribution to sensory integration, spatial awareness, and complex cognitive functions makes it a crucial player in our understanding of the infinity concept and the human brain’s capacity to comprehend abstract mathematical ideas. Its structure, functions, and clinical implications provide us with a deeper understanding of the brain’s complexity and its ability to navigate concepts as abstract and boundless as infinity.

Psychology of Infinity:

On the psychological side, the concept of infinity can elicit a wide range of responses. It’s been observed to trigger feelings of awe, wonder, and a deep sense of curiosity about the nature of the universe. However, for some, contemplating infinity can also be disconcerting or intimidating, as it contradicts our innate preference for finite, comprehensible quantities. This emotional response is an integral part of how we comprehend the infinite, underlining the deeply intertwined relationship between our emotions and cognitive processing.

From a psychological standpoint, the concept of infinity is intangible, but its fundamental understanding can be achieved through mathematical series and limits. For instance, the limit of 1/n as n approaches infinity is zero. Mathematically, this is expressed as:

lim (n→∞) 1/n = 0

This understanding that a quantity can infinitely approach a value but never reach it is a powerful cognitive leap that helps in comprehending infinity.

Infinity in Everyday Life:

Despite its abstract nature, infinity is not entirely divorced from our day-to-day lives. It underpins the technology we use, the physics that describe our universe, and even the way we think about time and space. Through exposure and learning, our brains adapt to handle the concept, even if indirectly. For instance, when we scroll on our smartphones, the concept of infinity allows for endless scrolling. Similarly, in physics, infinity plays a crucial role in various theories about the universe’s structure and the nature of black holes. Through regular, albeit often unconscious, interaction with these facets of infinity, our brains gradually build up an understanding of the concept, enabling us to navigate a world increasingly defined by boundless digital landscapes and innovative scientific theories.

Infinity is used in calculus when dealing with infinitesimals or infinitely small quantities. It’s these infinitesimals that allow us to perform integration, which can be visualized as summing up an infinite number of infinitesimally small rectangles to find the area under a curve. The formula for integration is:

∫f(x)dx from a to b

In this context, ‘dx’ can be thought of as an infinitesimally small change in x, highlighting the use of infinity in everyday mathematical applications.


Understanding infinity is a complex process, a dance between abstract logic and concrete representation. Even though we may struggle to visualize infinity, our brains are capable of engaging with it through indirect means. This human ability to transcend cognitive boundaries, and venture into the realm of the infinite, is a testament to the power and adaptability of our brains.

In conclusion, understanding infinity pushes the boundaries of human cognition. It’s a testament to the human brain’s remarkable adaptability and capacity for abstract thought that we can understand a concept so outside our tangible experiences. Despite not being able to visualize infinity directly, our brains can navigate the concept through indirect strategies and abstract reasoning. By exploring infinity, we shed light on the boundless potential of human cognition, illuminating the incredible depth and breadth of our capacity to understand. Indeed, as we strive to comprehend infinity, we affirm that the human potential for learning and understanding may well be infinite in its own right.

This exploration into infinity reveals not only how we understand the world but also highlights the endless potential for human cognition. Whether it’s infinity or other abstract concepts, the brain’s adaptability and capacity for understanding is, in itself, seemingly infinite.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *