Answer: A Small Committed Group of 150 Gathered in the Name of Truth and Kindness
A lifetime ago, in the fall of 1996, a good friend and I conspired to introduce online education at the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology where we were faculty. We looked into the future and we saw it hurtling toward higher ed, and we thought using computers to teach and learn could be a good thing.
Dr. Ruth and I looked around at the state of computer-mediated-communication (CMC) in those days and, based upon our long-time involvement with the Sausalito/San Francisco online community, The Well, we elected to adapt their CMC model for our educational platform. The computer technology (Caucus) was “minimally invasive,” open-source, easy to learn and more than reasonably priced. The most important part of the Well model however, was that community participants had regular, planned opportunities to spend time together in “meat space.” In addition to the “cohort learning model,” Ruth and I made the meat-space requirement an integral, essential feature of our online educational program: students were required to gather together four times a year for a week of in-person teaching, learning and socializing. But things didn’t turn out quite the way we planned. Darn those unintended consequences.
Blog Reading Makes Me Nervous
All this bit of backstory is by way of opening a discussion about the unintended consequences of blog writing. Years ago, Marshall McLuhan observed that “the medium is the message.” That observation has never been more true than in this age of instant digital distraction. Do I REALLY want to waste your time with Twitter data like: For breakfast this morning I had a cup of tea and a Thomas’s English Muffin filled with their trademarked and patented Nooks and Crannies? Do I really want to plug up your precious neural real estate with news of my recent, first colonoscopy? The medium has become increasingly briefer and to me feels evermore neuro-network-clogging. Absent curators or editors, it’s basically taken the small-talk, safety test of human meat-space interaction to new levels of inanity. It’s also apparently raised the level of national anxiety as Leo Babauta – Mr. Zen Habits – pointedly discusses here on his blog.
Less is Too Much
I have been considering this question for the better part of a year now, and a number of recent media pieces have convinced me that writing this blog might not be doing as much good as I had originally hoped or intended. The first piece is this recent Newsweek story: Is the Onslaught Making Us Crazy? Next is this TED talk by MIT professor Sherry Turkle on being together alone. A third piece is this Atlantic Monthly article by Stephen Marche. A fourth is this talk by J. P. Rangaswami on how Information Has Become Food, rendering too many of us (especially me) informationally obese. (Never mind that Oxford professor of neuro-pharmacology, Susan Greenfield thinks that technology may be creating a whole planet of “introverts” – people excessively anxious around other humans in the real world). Taken together, these articles underscore the fact that a big piece of what happens with a blog (as well as most other forms of media) is … NON-contingent communication. It’s MOSTLY one-way: me broadcasting weekly to over 6000 of you. And my repeated investigations into brain science and attachment research underscore the fact that non-contingent communication is not optimal for neurogenesis and/or synaptogenesis, i.e. brain plasticity. Live, salient feedback and interaction is essential as evidenced by this landmark study done by University of Washington developmental brain reseacher, Patricia Kuhl. The human brain is finite in its capacity to process and store energy and information. Add to that the fact recent research by British evolutionary biologist Robin Dunbar. In his book, How Many Friends Does One Person Need?, Dunbar determined that based upon size and network complexity, the human brain is only able to maintain stable social relationships with a maximum of 150 people. Everything we pay attention to has significant opportunity cost attached to it: If much of my life is spent communicating non-contingently with more people than Dunbar’s Number advises, I’m personally convinced that much of the remainder of my life is going to end up being superficially mis-spent, perhaps in ways that I don’t intend or even realize.
The Three Invisible Connectors
Israeli relationship therapist Hedy Schleifer identifies three invisible connectors required for meaningful relationship. One is recognizing the space between us is sacred; two is resolving to build a bridge across that space; three is practicing skillful ways and means of authentically, respectfully and intentionally walking across that bridge, thus activating and strengthening the “social synapse.”
In response to this emerging awareness and honoring Hedy’s Three Invisible Connectors, I’ve come to believe that computer mediated communication by itself lacks sufficient robustness to make optimally strong neural connections. We need to spend time together in person. So, as a result of this increasing, niggling discomfort, I’ve decided to inaugurate the following changes with this blog:
1. I WILL continue to research and write and post about social neuroscience.
2. But, I’m going to discontinue my “push efforts” – emails announcing the publication of this blog every Sunday. No more batch-mailing to a list.
3. I’m going to do my best to write and post only when I have something that I’m REALLY deeply moved by. Things I think might be able to profoundly and positively improve people’s lives (although there’s definitely something to be said about the brain benefits of disciplined writing and editing every week).
4. I will begin looking for kind ways to greatly reduce my readers to a collection of roughly 150 people, specifically people avidly interested in social neuroscience with whom I might actually be able to hang with in real-time “meat space.”
5. I WILL welcome those interested into deeper conversation and connection, ideally at a local commons or coffee house or hiking trail somewhere in the Puget Sound area or near your local hometown.
What Can We Create Together?
Margaret Mead is famous for her observation that we should never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has. What she’s less famous for is her observation that the world doesn’t need more children, it needs “high-quality” children. For me and my interests, what this means is that we need children of all ages who have made it their business to understand how brains develop and how that development can be undercut by many of the ways cultures and families unwittingly promote apathy, imbalance, fear, disorganization and learned helplessness. Perhaps a small group of us who deeply understand this unintended consequence might work together and begin to truly change a wee piece of our world for the better. In person.
We would then be modeling Einstein’s brain development. One thing that made Einstein’s brain so unique was the Sylvian fissure – a deep groove in most of our brains – was completely filled in in his – massively connecting his parietal and temporal lobes. A robust developmental trajectory would develop programs and practices that would support JUST such growth … in person. Person to person. Which, in part, is how Einstein managed it – in collaboration with two lifelong friends at the “Olympia Academy.” We can at least aspire …