There’s a really interesting experiment that has been carried out over and over in child development labs all over the world. It was designed by Ed Tronick at the University of Massachusetts more than 30 years ago.
The experiment works like this: a mother and a baby interact face to face in the laboratory. Mom talks motherese, coos and smiles and winks. Baby responds animatedly with similar behaviors. Then, at a signal from the experimenter, mom’s face goes still. She doesn’t blink. She doesn’t move a single one of the 42 muscles in her face.
Within seconds, baby is in distress. Here’s how Ed Tronick describes it:
What’s really striking about the still face experiment is that the infants don’t stop trying to get the parents’ attention back. They’ll go through repeated cycles where they try to elicit attention, fail, turn away, sad and disengaged, then they turn back and try again.
When it goes on long enough, you see infants lose postural control and actually collapse in the car seat. Or they’ll start self-soothing behaviors, sucking the back of their hand or their thumbs. Then they really disengage from the parent and don’t look back.
Some infants, however, become so distressed that that they’re unable to console themselves. This neglect leads to increases in the heart rate, a flush of the stress hormone cortisol and to cell death in key regions of the brain.
What Tronick and his colleagues are demonstrating is both our need for, and the extraordinary power of serve-and-return communication (known as contingent communication in the research literature).
I’m sure many of you have noticed that … there is little contingent communication involved with TED Talks. Which is ironic, since TED Talks are intended to produce “knowledge in dangerously addictive short doses.” In other words, learning. In the last decade we’ve discovered a treasure trove of information about the science of learning. What neuroscience teaches us is that the most powerful learning – learning that we can use to ultimately change our neural networks such that we can actually apply it in the world – works powerfully as the result of feedback loops. Feedback loops make learning happen. They also increase the probability of inspiring us to do what’s needed next: take affirmative action in the world.
The Three Magic Ingredients
I’ve written about contingent communication before, just not in the context of TED Talks. But I think it’s so important for lifelong healthy brain development that I’m writing about it here once again.
There are three important components that have to be present for feedback loops to be effective. The first is that the TED Talk audience has to be paying attention. They have to know something about both the subject matter the speaker is presenting on and know the definitions of the words she is using. They also have to be attending to the process – the body language and emotional tone of the speaker and any number of other meta-elements present – prosody, cadence, tone, pace, etc. Also, at some level, what’s NOT being said.
Next, they have to translate what they are hearing and seeing into a meaningful message. Messages mostly become meaningful when they emotionally and intellectually impact my life in some way. For example, that a technology or a design innovation has the capacity to expand and deepen how I engage with and process the world around me.
Finally, in order for the feedback loop to come full circle, I need to respond to the speaker – and here’s the piece missing in so much of the way Technology, Education and Design currently impact our lives – in a timely and effective manner. Let me repeat here – I need to respond in a timely and effective manner.
Timely and Effective Engagement
Thinking back to the Still Face Experiment, what’s clearly missing is mom’s timely and effective response to baby expressing needs for contact and engagement. That is also precisely what is missing from TED Talks. It’s also precisely what’s missing from all too many technological innovations. It’s also a significant piece of what’s missing from … blog writing. At most, a few people might offer a comment or two, to which I will respond, and that will be the end of it. What’s missing? A lot. What can you identify? What can we DO about it?