Brain and Body

Is it Possible to Imagine Infinity in Our Minds?

November 6, 2015 | Kelly Tatera

Mirrored room stretching into infinity
Photo credit: ( Waiting for ) Godot/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Or is the concept something that is simply impossible for our brains to grasp?

Infinity. That which has no limits, no boundaries — something that goes on forever. An explanation or illustration of “infinity” may differ when you’re talking to a mathematician, astrophysicist, or an artist. But can any of us truly paint a mental picture of the infinitely-expanding universe, or grasp that a “highest number” doesn’t exist?

Interestingly, although we perceive infinity as something that goes on forever, our ancestors understood it in different ways. As LiveScience reports, ancient Indian philosophers grasped it as something from which parts could be removed or added, but the entity would remain the same. The ancient Greeks thought of it as the endless set of prime numbers. Perhaps with different perceptions of what the word itself signifies, many of us may end up with different images in our heads of what infinity is.

ALSO WATCH: What is Life? Is Death Real?

Andy Albrecht, a cosmologist and the chairman of the physics department at the University of California, Davis, shared his analogy for infinity with LiveScience. Various art installations provide an illusion of what infinity might look like, including the famous Infinity Mirrored Room in the David Zwirner Gallery. By positioning lights and mirrors in a certain way, visitors can get the impression that the room goes on forever. However, Albrecht argues that this illusion would be ruined the second somebody threw a ball at the wall, and they’d quickly return to the reality that the room is finite.

"But you can imagine a bigger room where you can throw a ball and it wouldn't come back,” he says. “The ball would have to travel so far to hit the opposite wall that you'd give up waiting for it. Maybe that would be good enough to represent infinity.”

You may not be convinced by an analogy which simplifies infinity to something like a large room, but Albrecht argues that when it comes to various branches of physics, like quantum mechanics, calculations which assume the universe is infinite versus those which assume the universe is huge but finite have immeasurably small differences in the outcomes.

This goes to show that everything depends on perception.

Looking at infinity in relation to math or physics is a radically different mental sensation than thinking about it in terms of life, the universe, or even love. For many of us, it’s easy to understand the concept of infinity, but we can’t comprehend how “big” or “never-ending” it is, because our perception of time always has a beginning and an end — minutes, days, years, lifespans.

Infinity, like love, signifies something which is intangible, and something that each human isn’t going to perceive in the exact same way. So can we truly imagine infinity in our minds? It depends on what angle you’re looking at it from.

You might be able to imagine an infinite love for your child or a lover because of what you feel inside, but thinking of the universe as having no boundaries and infinitely expanding is a different ball game. Is there anything beyond it? Was there anything before it, and will there be anything after it? If there are infinite universes, how is it that reality  has no boundaries? Where do all of these vast galaxies fit?

Imagining “infinity” in our minds is certainly no simple task, but it can’t be deemed as impossible since there are many different ways of thinking about it and envisioning it. But maybe Albert Einstein gave the simplest explanation of all: “Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity.”

Hot Topics

Facebook comments