Book Review: Brain Power: From Neurons to Networks

Brain Power: From Neurons to NetworksBrain Power: From Neurons to Networks
by Tiffany Shlain
TED Conferences, 2012
51 pages (Kindle)


Comparing technology to the brain is not a new thing. Telephone wiring, electrical wiring, a computer, or a network of computers have all joined the many metaphors for the brain over the years (see my review of Brain Culture here at The Discarded Image). Most metaphors fail at some point, but they can provide some perspective.

In Brain Power: From Neurons to Networks, Tiffany Shlain takes a reverse approach. Rather than turn technology into a metaphor for the brain, she turns the brain into a metaphor for technology.

Shlain takes on the parallels between the development of a child’s brain and that of the internet. As neuroscience delves into the early growth of the human brain, can its conclusions also shed light on the early formation of a global brain? Shlain believes it does.

We’re constantly striving to extend our reach. When we couldn’t see far enough, we made the telescope. When we needed to speak with people who weren’t within shouting distance, we created the telephone…The Internet, is, in many ways, an extension of our brains — an extension of us. And, like us, these inventions can be both good and bad, and everything in between.

This last part is very true. When once I was caught up in a “who sang what song?” conversation, I remember using the words “let me think,” after which I immediately pulled out my phone to Google the answer. It was very evident that I am the type of technology user that sees the internet as an extension of myself.

But is the development of a child’s brain similar to that of the internet?

Shlain sees the parallel between the human child’s brain, which is especially inclined to learning and development in terms of connections via neurons, and that of the internet, in which connections are made and development occurs as the result of user generated links.

With this analogy, a neuron would be like a webpage. Right now, neurons are telling your hands to hold an iPad or a Kindle, and they’re letting your brain know how it feels against your palms. Neurons are directing your eyes to move across the page and are processing the letters into words and meanings. Then they transmit those meanings into memories and new ideas. And they’re doing all this via synapses, the connections between them. In the realm of the Internet, webpages act like neurons. Instead of synapses, they have links, which transmit information, make connections, move things around, and make communication happen.

Perhaps as a metaphor it has its benefits, but like so many metaphors, it must reach some limitations. Inevitably, all past metaphors were discontinued because the distance between the advanced system of the brain and technology are too great to be true equals (at least for now).

Shlain’s futurist thinking, however, is contagious. She argues that as the brain’s connections lead to “capability,” so also the more our world makes connections through the internet the greater our joint capability and “insights” as a species. As with a child’s brain, each connection is important and should be nurtured properly. As in the development of a child’s brain, global connections should not be made frivolously. We should take stock in what we connect to and what contributions we bring to these global connections.

Her underlying principles in Brain Power are worth heading. She reminds the reader and viewer (see video below) that thoughtful connections online by everyone contribute to the global brain, that is, we are all contributing in either positive or negative ways to the development of this marvelous piece of technology that fuels our classrooms, our computers, and our TV viewing habits.

Shlain draws on current discussions of the “Connectome” (see Connectome by Sebastian Seung), which is a map of our neurons and synapses that provide a big picture of what an organism’s brain looks like and how it functions. Connectomics tells us that we are not simply genes, but we are nurtured brains shaped by our surroundings; Shlain believes that principle should be applied to the global brain as well.

She also calls for the use of a technology shabbat. “From sundown on Fridays to sundown on Saturdays,” she writes, “we shut down every cellphone, iPad, TV, and computer in the house. This practice has been profoundly life-changing for us. It resets my soul each week.” I have trouble not looking at my phone every five seconds to see if I have messages, so like any tech addict, this would be difficult to do. I can, however, see the need for something like it or a period of restraint. This does raise the question though, while all of us can refuse to contribute to the global brain during a time of rest, can a child’s brain really stop learning and growing?

There is a lot in this little book and its worth the read and her accompanying film will only take 10 minutes. It provides a valuable look into the values we place in connections online. It reminds us to be mindful of the connections we make and the information we take in or pass along, and while that may seem like a no-brainer, take a few moments in a YouTube comment section and you’ll discover it’s apparently not.




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