A team of Brazilian physicists analyzing the brains of rats and other animals has found the strongest evidence yet that the brain balances at the brink between two modes of operation, in a precarious yet versatile state known as criticality. At the same time, the findings challenge some of the original assumptions of this controversial “critical brain” hypothesis.

Understanding how the huge networks of neurons that comprise our thinking organs process information about the world is a daunting mystery for neuroscientists. One part of that broad puzzle is how a single physical structure can be primed to deal with life’s myriad demands. “If the brain is completely disordered, it cannot process information,” explained Mauro Copelli, a physicist at the Federal University of Pernambuco in Brazil and a coauthor of the new research. “If it’s too ordered, it’s too rigid to cope with the variability of the environment.”

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