Q&A TED Books

The parallels between our highly wired minds and networks: Q&A with TED author Tiffany Shlain

Can we draw instructive parallels between the development of the human brain and the emergence of the electronic global ‘brain’ of the Internet? New research in neuroscience suggests that, yes, we can. In the new TED ebook, Brain Power: From Neurons to Networks, filmmaker Tiffany Shlain explores the links between the two. The book also arrives concurrently with a 10-minute film of the same name, marking the first time a TED Book and film have been released together.

We recently spoke with Tiffany about her research.

In Brain Power, you draw parallels between neuroscience and tech development, and how the fields are interrelated. How did you first link the two?

The idea for Brain Power arose while I traveled to screen my feature documentary “Connected.”  I kept being asked the same question: What is all this technology doing to our brains? Around the same time, a mentor began to share research on child brain development with me. I quickly discovered that the language neuroscientists used (connections, links, overstimulation) and the strategies early childhood development specialists used to describe brain development in the early years of life are similar to the way we should be talking about the growth of the Internet, and strategies for the mindful use of technology. So my team and I started thinking about what we could learn by comparing the development of a child’s brain with the development of our “global brain.”

We’ve known for a long time that interactions during the first five years of life are critical to brain development, but a new machine at the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning and Brain Science (I-LABS), called MEG (a powerful brain imaging machine retrofitted specially for infants), now gives us the ability to see in real-time how connections are triggered and grow through every interaction a young child has. This new technology shows us so clearly how important a child’s environment and interactions are during these early years when the brain is most malleable.

The same can be said about the growth of the Internet. Compared with the human life cycle, the Internet is also in its metaphoric first five years when it is most malleable. Just like every interaction creates new connections in a child’s brain, every email, tweet, search or post is creating and strengthening connections in our global brain, literally changing the shape of the Internet that we, as billions of people all over the world, are developing together. And just as it’s key for all the different parts of a child’s brain to be connected to set the stage for the most insightful and creative thoughts, it’s key that all the different parts of the world are connected — to lay the foundation for worldwide empathy, innovation and human expression. The film and the book really explore these parallels, and offer insights into how we can best shape both.

What can the developing electronic brain learn from the emerging human brain?

That everything we do shapes the connections in our brain — both our individual brain and our global brain. We are — actively, daily — affecting the connections in our brains as we plug into our smartphones and tablets and laptops. And since it’s having such an impact on our minds, we need to do it mindfully, and sometimes not do it at all. Every person you follow on Twitter or friend on Facebook influences your thoughts. Sometimes they even show up in your dreams. On Twitter, people I follow almost become my stream of consciousness; they are streams of thought in my head. We need to be mindful of who and what we let into our brains. always. Then when thinking of our individual brains linking into this larger network of everyone being connected together, we need to be mindful that every time we interact with this global brain, we are affecting the way it is developing. And we need to look at the way an individual brain grows and see that it’s critical that we get all the different parts of the brain (in this case world) connected for the most insightful thoughts. There are 7 billion people on the planet and only over 2 billion people online. Just imagine the potential when we can get everyone who wants to be online, online.

You note that this endless availability of tech adds a lot of stress to brain, but it also has some positive effects as well. How does stress affect the development?

I loved learning of the research of Dr. Paul Zak who found the hormone oxytocin is released when you get a text or email. That’s often called the “love” hormone. That can only be a good thing. But I don’t need any neuroscientist to tell me that being on too much is over stressing my brain. Just as a child’s brain can’t be too overstimulated, I know when I feel that point in my brain.  I now don’t bring the cell phone into the bedroom. I need to quiet my mind before I sleep. Well, there are multiple reasons to not bring too many distractions into the bedroom.

Why did you write this book now?

I was just finishing the script for the film “Brain Power” when Jim Daly, the editor for TED Books, called and asked me to explore the possibility of writing a TED Book. I loved the idea of having this new type of book that I could embed video links and link to all the research we had done with the film we were then working on. It was a fantastic creative challenge. It many ways, it allows me to unpack and go so much deeper than the film would allow. In addition to writing out more deeply the ideas, we were able to add a lot videos and links to cutting-edge neuroscience research and reports, some of other short films and we even have a Louis C.K. comedy link. It’s a very exciting way to think about someone’s experience of ideas in this new way. I definitely think TED Books are the future of books.

How has this research affected the way you interact with your children?

Knowing how critical the first five years are, and being able to see the actual synapses forming through this new MEG technology makes the importance of healthy environments and stimulation very visceral. I find that I am doing a lot of things more consciously with our 3 year-old Blooma. I make eye contact with her longer, try to make her laugh even more, hug her longer,  teach her bigger words, all fun things to do anyway.  But perhaps I am more mindful and conscious that I am helping grow her brain.

What advice would you give people on changing their relationship to tech overload?

Two years ago, my family and I started unplugging one day a week. Starting on Friday night sundown until Saturday night. We call it our technology shabbats. It’s been life changing.  As much as I love technology, I now race towards Friday night with gusto. I highly recommend giving your mind one day to be in a different mode.  It makes time slow down. What’s the one day you want to feel long? Saturday. Then another great advantage is that by Saturday night, I eappreciate technology all over again when I go back online.

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Brain Power is part of the TED Books series. It is available for the Kindle and Nook, as well as through the iBookstore. Or download the TED Books app for your iPad or iPhone.