What Is the Speed of Thought?

Carl Zimmer in Discover:

ScreenHunter_01 Dec. 17 10.07 Morse’s invention debuted just as researchers were starting to make sense of the nervous system, and telegraph wires were an inspiring model of how nerves might work. After all, nerves and telegraph wires were both long strands, and they both used electricity to transmit signals. Scientists knew that telegraph signals did not travel instantaneously; in one experiment, it took a set of dots and dashes a quarter of a second to travel 900 miles down a telegraph wire. Perhaps, the early brain investigators considered, it took time for nerves to send signals too. And perhaps we could even quantify that time.

The notion that the speed of thought could be measured, just like the density of a rock, was shocking. Yet that is exactly what scientists did. In 1850 German physiologist Hermann von Helmholtz attached wires to a frog’s leg muscle so that when the muscle contracted it broke a circuit. He found that it took a tenth of a second for a signal to travel down the nerve to the muscle. In another experiment he applied a mild shock to people’s skin and had them gesture as soon as they felt it. It took time for signals to travel down human nerves, too. In fact, Helmholtz discovered it took longer for people to respond to a shock in the toe than to one at the base of the spine because the path to the brain was longer.

More here.