Brain Power Film and TED Book with Tiffany Shlain

Education Internet Technology

How is a child’s developing brain like the internet? And how can both develop better? These are the central questions of Webby founder Tiffany Shlain’s latest film, Brain Power, accompanied by a TED book of the same name. “My dad was a surgeon — he came to parent career day at school with a human brain in a bucket,” says Shlain. “Guess I’ve been fascinated with the brain ever since.”

Shlain describes running out of money trying to make her first movie, still unfinished, called Zoli’s Brain. Her first feature film, Connected, explored what it means to be connected in the 21 century, told with her father through the increasingly disconnected lens of his advancing brain cancer. Brain Power is no less ambitious. Simply, it’s a well-researched depiction of how kids build brains juxtaposed with the march toward an interconnected world.

“We’re all born with 100 billion neurons, but the connections aren’t there yet,” says Shlain. “With the internet, there’s 7 billion on the planet and only 2 billion online — we’re at the very early stage of connecting everyone.” Shlain describes interviewing Patricia Kuhl, PhD, co-director of the University of Washington Institute for Learning and Brain Science, who shows that the brain’s interconnectedness is what drives creativity and allows insight. “Likewise,” says Shlain, “we won’t see the full potential of the internet until we fully interconnect the world’s 7 billion people. We’re at the edge of that kind of innovation. We just need some kind of collaborative space to tackle these problems. I think we’ll find it — that is, if we can avoid the equivalent of global ADD before that.”

Shlain shows these synapses connecting in real time. “At the University of Washington they watch as kids build synapses,” says Shlain. She describes watching synapses crackle as kids laugh — “not at silly things, but when they really get stuff. And of course, you see the same spike in real time synapse building from hugging and cuddling. Eye contact, too.” In addition to UW and a foray into the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, the movie also includes fascinating interviews with Internet co-founder Vint Cerf and best-selling book author Howard Rheingold.

As parents we work to build our kids’ brains. As geeks we exist with one foot in that interconnected space of the internet. Shlain’s film bridges the gap between the two.

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