Brain Power: From Neurons to Networks

brain power

A long time ago, longer than I’d care to admit, I was sitting at a dinner gathering and my cousin Fred posed the question: “What do you think is the fastest way to make change — by group consensus or by one person?” I naturally leapt to the conclusion of group consensus because it just seemed so obvious that a large number of people changing would make the bigger difference. But then he pointed out how difficult it would be to get an entire group of people to agree on making a change all at once. He felt it would be better to change oneself, since that’s really all you can control, and then by being an example perhaps impress others to make a change — kind of like throwing a pebble into a lake and watching the ripples emanate from the splash.

A child is born with about 100 billion neurons, the same amount that an adult brain has. What’s different is the amount of connections between the neurons. That’s what the developing brain is all about — firing and wiring and making connections. And that’s what our relatively young internet, or “global brain” — is all about, too.

Tiffany Shlain is a filmmaker, artist, author, and co-founder of the International Academy of Digital Arts & Sciences. Her films have premiered at Sundance, including her acclaimed feature documentary, “Connected: An Autoblogography about Love, Death & Technology,” which The New York Times hailed as “incredibly engaging” and “examining everything from the Big Bang to Twitter.”

Shlain employs a new kind of collaborative filmmaking which she calls “cloud filmmaking”: each of these kind of films invites participants to send in videos from their cellphones and after the film is completed her team them makes free customized versions for nonprofits all over the world. The first film in the series, “A Declaration of Interdependence,” with music by Moby, has been translated into 65 languages and, Shlain has made 100 customized versions. The second, “Engage,” looks at the importance of engaging in society and has garnered 200 customized versions.

Her project, “Brain Power: From Neurons to Networks,” both a short film and a TED book, looks at new research on how to best grow children’s brains and applies this to thinking about the best way to grow the global brain of the internet.

When she and her team began “Brain Power,” Shlain writes, “they delved into brain development research, and quickly discovered that, fittingly, the language neuroscientists use to describe the growth of a child’s brain (connections, links, overstimulation) is often how we characterize or describe aspects of the ever-changing and evolving internet.”

Carrying the metaphor further, they realized that our brains change “throughout life because behavior, experiences and environment can alter neural pathways and synapses” — this is called “neuroplasticity.” The relatively young internet is similar to a child, and Shlain believes that “Our role as nurturers in this critical stage of development — the first 2,000 days, or birth to five years old — is to provide an environment that strengthens as many connections as possible and prunes the ones that aren’t needed, ultimately building a strong foundation for the rest of the child’s life.”

TED books are meant to be read in an hour, but don’t be fooled by the slimness of the 90-page volume. Combining the centuries-old tradition of sequential text with multimedia elements that boost your interest in and understanding of what you’re reading, the format brings the narrative to life in a stimulating experience.

Co-written with Goldberg and Moxie Institute writer-producer Sawyer Steele, “Brain Power” draws on research from the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning and Brain Science and Harvard University’s Early Childhood Development Center. Authors and Internet pioneers Howard Rheingold, Steven Johnson, and Vint Cerf also contributed to the TED book and film.

In a conversation with Shlain, I asked her when she thought the internet would be “all grown up?” She replied that when everyone on the planet has access to and is readily engaged in internet interaction. This will provide an entirely new landscape of communication, innovation, and problem-solving. “What are some mindfulness tips to growing our global ‘internet’ brain responsibly?” I asked.

She suggested a “technology shabbat” (refraining from all technology use for one day a week): it not only calms the mind but also makes the return to our wires, plug-ins, and connections that much more enjoyable. (Check out Brain World‘s article “I Just Can’t Quit You Technology!”) Especially enjoyable and relevant for this topic is a two-minute film made by Shlain and her husband, Ken Goldberg, called “Yelp: With Apologies to Allen Ginsberg’s Howl,” which was made for an event called the National Day of Unplugging.

She also encouraged an overall attention and awareness to the types of communication we are fostering on the internet. Where we put our attention will be where our energy goes — and if we interact with other people who want to contribute and make a difference — we have the opportunity to raise our consciousness globally.

This article was first published in the print edition of Brain World Magazine.

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