Crisis and the Global Brain

Tiffany Shlain, founder of Let It Ripple Film Studios, has compared our newly interconnected society to the developing brain of a baby.  The internet is a global ‘brain’ composed of electronic, virtual networks in its early stages.

I like this metaphor.  I’m not sure it’s exact, because the newborn’s brain develops in the context of  warm, nurturing emotional connections with others, whereas the internet started at the other end, building its ‘neocortex’ first (scientists were the first to use it).  But I think the metaphor can help us understand our current situation.

So let’s take it as a strong analogy. I’ll add to it by suggesting that a year of internet development is equivalent to about a month in infant development.  The history then would look like this:

The internet was in fetal stage in the 1980s, beginning with the Simple Mail Protocol in 1982. Its birth as a global phenomenon was 9 “months” later in August 1991, when the World Wide Web was introduced to the public. A new intelligence came into the world.

At age 2 months (1993) the first instant message appeared – interestingly, husband to wife, saying “Don’t be scared.”  At 4 months (1995), the baby began creating exchanges within its environment that were broader: obtaining goods and communications (Amazon, EBay, Hotmail). At 7 months (1998), it began to explore and search its environment for things it actively wanted (Google).  At 8 months (1999), Emojis arrived to offer a variety of simple emotional communication. While Web TV had been around for a while, interactive (two-way) personal video communication wasn’t till the baby was a year old (Skype 2003) and posting homemade videos two months later (YouTube 2005). Short bits of designed communication (Twitter 2006) were at age 15 months – on that level of the brain, a precocious kid.

In the years since, the internet has transformed our individual brains through the technology designed to connect our personal brains to it more and more intuitively, the iconic inventions being the iPhone in 2007 and the iPad in 2010.

An individual baby’s brain from 16 to 24 months is changing at an enormous rate, mastering more ways of interacting with its environment physically, emotionally, and linguistically, as well as developing the beginnings of self-identity.  Babies recognize themselves in mirrors sometime after 15 months of age. That’s a pretty good marker for when our global brain began to recognize, about 10 years ago, that we are becoming a different species – seeing ourselves in a much larger mirror.

I wonder if it is an accident that just then, the USA broke through an old barrier and elected a black president who demonstrated himself to be a globally-oriented leader (sometimes to his detriment in effectiveness). While others had been proclaiming a clash of civilizations, as if the brain were at war within itself, he championed the view that our difficulties were a mirror of adjustment to globalization, to this new evolution of Intelligence.

Many of us, using the new technology, have seen a dream emerging into reality as our horizons expand beyond anything imaginable in our youth.  But we also know that personally, we can easily get overwhelmed by information. Struggling to relate to the new reality, we often exhaust ourselves – our nervous systems are overwhelmed, our time seems to dissipate, we find it difficult to make choices about how to connect, with whom, for what.  This is a challenge of learning something new – of becoming part of a bigger world – but it’s tricky, and we don’t always manage it well.

Just as a toddler will tantrum when over-stressed, as any child can fall back to its previous developmental stage (with parents moaning, “Why is he acting like a baby again?”), so with us. While using the tools of our new technology, we falter. “Too much too soon” is what educators tells us about a child who is in nursery school a bit too early.

We’re just a little over two years old in our new collective brain.  All the pieces that have to come together for us to function competently are not in place yet.  And in political developments – the polis, the public arena, analogous to the nursery school playroom – we are seeing eruptions.

Now, this seemed like a crazy comparison, so I went searching into infant development to see if there was anything remotely relevant.  I happened across some interesting studies reported in research by a group called Zero to Three, focusing on the development from infancy to early childhood.

Before three years old, kids aren’t highly developed in social interactions. In fact, most researchers hold that empathy doesn’t develop much before age five.  However, more in-depth research that depends less on verbal fluency has shown something different.  A fascinating experiment was designed to see whether babies can infer information about others from their behavior.  It turned out that if the experimenter asked a 15-month-old toddler to give her one of a choice of foods, the baby would give her what the baby liked.  But by 18 months of age, the toddler could discern from the experimenter’s previous behavior what the experimenter liked, and would give her that food.  Not only did it reveal inferential abilities, but also that the baby wanted to make the experimenter feel good. This is one of the roots of philanthropic behavior – I can act for something other than what I would want, on behalf of another person.

The enormous possibilities for this development in the global brain are astounding.  Tiffany Shlain gives us an example in her beautiful video The Adaptable Mind.  

At the same time, under stress or crisis, we will fall back into places where we think we can get emotional support – back to our 15-month-old brain. We need those places to recover resiliency.  Blocs of population that are less attuned, or have had less exposure and supportive learning with the new global brain, are more likely to slip out of sync.  And all of us born before 1980 know that, like a language, if you didn’t grow up with it, it’s much harder and sometimes humiliating (“if you can’t fix your smart phone, ask your kid”)!

Thus, over the last 10 years, which developmentally for the global brain would be the time of growing in empathic understanding and desire to give to one another, some parts of the brain are simply not there yet, or can’t sustain it.  In earlier eras, families and religious communities provided the back-up for individuals going through periods of stress. In the era of global brain, we go to social media “bubbles,” or “echo chambers,” where we get reinforcement on an emotional level from others who feel like us.

I hope this sounds familiar. We’ve thought that the stresses of cultural change / global-brain development would gradually dissolve, but instead they intensified and came home to roost in the past year.  We know that one half of the brain fighting another is not good, and the rise of nationalistic identities plus the information wars are exactly that.

A situation that lasts a month or two in the life of a toddler can be rectified.  If it becomes toxic stress, over years of abuse or conflicting demands, recovery is more difficult.

Where does that leave us?

First, don’t add to our stress by feeling guilty or making others feel that way.  Retreating to an echo chamber is like hunkering down in a hideout for awhile. These reactions are natural, on all sides.

Second, comforting experiences are important. Last week we had big rains in southern California, and a few people posted photos of amazing rainbows at the end of the storms. I was surprised to discover in myself how suddenly my tension levels dropped when I lingered a few minutes on the rainbows.  Find your favorite internet tension-relief spots. It’s like a loving parent showing up to give us a hug.

Third, since we don’t want the current stress to go on any longer than necessary, who’s going to drop their end of the rope and say, we’re not doing this tug-of-war anymore?  It’s hard, when you feel that something big is at stake, but brain health is pretty high priority. We have to engage our creativity to find other ways than continued push-and-pull.

Fourth, we can take a big perspective.  The brilliance of Shlain’s work is exactly that – to see ourselves as part of an organism that is evolving. Like the two-year-old who sees herself in the mirror, whose knowledge that she is a whole being affects her entire identity, we too are learning to see ourselves and our future differently.  We need to practice this perspective, remind ourselves daily.

In that big perspective, remember that your presumed ‘opponents’ are stressed out too. Even the president publicly said he needs to be among friends (2/18/17 rally in Florida). While I write that with a considerable dose of irony, there is a drop of sympathy too.

The sympathetic, philanthropic impulse is a matter of the soul. It becomes visible at a certain point in brain development, and that generous connection to the needs and desires of the other is the child’s first initiation into a larger world.  So also for the global brain. Patrick Harpur writes in The Philosopher’s Secret Fire, “There is always enough fear and pain to go around. The secret is to use these experiences for self-initiation.”

As we use our internet experiences for self-initiation – experiences of fear and pain as well as curiosity and joy – the perspective of the soul will be what allows us to heal the global brain in crisis, and draw out its potential for the future.

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