Quiet, Please!


Remember the early days of social networks and all the hype around Web2.0, “the social web”?  What started out as a form of online activity has quickly taken over the digital world by such storm that by now it is an inherent part of it. With Facebook’s well over a billion users and smartphones in everyone’s pockets, people around the world are playing more social games, uploading more content and interacting with each other and with products on the web in an ever-increasing rate. So much digital noise around us, it really is getting harder and harder to follow, let alone find a haven of peace and quiet amidst all this noise.

So what has the brain got to do with it?

With current brain imaging techniques, researchers can track what parts of the brain are active while doing anything from watching a movie, to being voted the weakest link. In recent years, brain studies have surfaced an unexpected finding that has been rattling the neuro / psycho-logy world and has lead to the emergence of the new field of Social Neuroscience. Basically what brain scientists across different disciplines have discovered is how central social thought is to the human mind. When you think about it, it makes perfect sense. The fact that humans can collaborate with each other is what enabled us to build (and sadly also to break) great things along the history of humankind.

Without knowing what’s going on under the brain’s hood, you’d think the social nature of people is made possible simply by people talking to each other. But the social brain goes far beyond language. Language may be the direct visible channel between people for sharing ideas, emotions and instructions, but by no means is it the only, or even primary, one. Truth is, language accounts for a small fraction of human communication. The vast majority comprises of other forms of non-verbal communication that require special mechanisms in our brains. Those mechanisms are dedicated to deciphering what’s going on in the other person’s brain. We all have to be mind readers, if you will. The “social brain” is a set of specialized brain regions doing exactly that – decoding the mental states in the brains of people around us.

talking brains

The social brain has three unique characteristics that make it so intriguing. First, it is “loud” by default. It constantly chatters in its own language – neural activity (neurons “firing” electric signals). As opposed to the rest of the brain, the social brain regions are the only ones that don’t reduce their activity in rest. When a person simply lies inside a brain imaging monitor (fMRI machine) without doing anything, the entire brain becomes less active. The entire brain, apart from the social regions. In other words, we have an innate tendency to view stuff around us as social organisms. Think of how we personify everything – from gadgets to buildings, we tend to view the world as having a soul: feelings and wants and needs. That’s because the social brain doesn’t normally shut down.

And what about the social web? So much has been written about the noise it’s causing and the ADD generation we’re growing, that I won’t even get into it. From facebook to twitter, commenting to liking – the social web is everywhere, constantly loud, constantly affecting us. But it’s not all bad. If you look at noise in neural networks, noise is constantly there, and it can create progress and help overcome problems inherent to the system. Projecting that back to the online world, I’d argue that this noise in our collective social brain leads to bursts of innovation and creativity.

Too much noise
Smeltley by Hector Ilanquin

Another unique characteristic of the social brain is the existence of mirror neurons. These really are one of the most intriguing phenomena in the brain (and certainly one of the most controversial). Mirror neurons are, as their name suggests, neurons that mirror other neurons activity. Which neurons? Neurons in the brain of the person you’re interacting with. When someone you’re talking to is extremely happy – not only can you hear it in the ecstatic tone of their voice, or see it in their smile, your very neurons “feel” it and mirror the “happy neurons” in the other person’s frontal lobe. In other words, social brain activity is infectious.

And where are mirror neurons in the web? For that we’ll have to define the equivalent of a neuron, a task I’m not quite ready to take (help, anyone?). However, the results of the mirror neural activity are quite apparent to me. What are memes if not infectious social behavior? What is virality, one of the most distinctive characteristics of the web, if not people echoing others’ behavior, thoughts, emotions? As memes spread through the social web, social brain activity can infect others and spread through the collective social brain.

Kitten and partial reflection in mirror

In order to compensate for being constantly loud, the social brain has another unique characteristic without which we could hardly survive. The social brain turns itself down when something else is being computed. You’d hardly want to start personifying functions while trying to solve math equations now, would you? So when you’re trying to calculate something or focus on a hard problem, the social brain realizes it would only be interfering and therefore shuts down.

But what turns off the “social web”? Fact is, we stopped calling it the “social” web because the social layer has become as invisible as it is omnipresent. The noise is now everywhere. So how should the web turn down the volume when we’re doing other stuff? Our biggest problem is, there is no specialized mechanism inherent in the system, as there is in the social brain. Some people believe the problem isn’t technology. It’s us. But expecting people to cut themselves off is as good as expecting a neuron to stop firing. We are inherently designed to be drawn, to react.


Until a time where the shutting of the noise is built into the system, it really is up to you to turn it down. So turn off your phone when you’re having dinner, go outside more. The sun is shining, birds are chirping. Technology has still not taken complete control of our lives.

What’s to Know?

How knowledge is changing, yet again

I always had this romantic notion that my library gives the walls of my living room a dusty intelligent look. That huge pile of covered paper used to be my pride and joy. I meticulously collected fiction, science, philosophy, poetry and art books and thought of it as a window not only into my education, but to my soul. Today, I shamefully admit I read much less than I used to. I focus on non-fiction works, and usually read about 7 of them in parallel, most of which I never finish. Today, my library is a graveyard to the old world I come from.
But this post is not about books. It’s about what those books represent. I no longer read mainly because the source of my knowledge has shifted – from books, to anything online. I consume heaps of written content, but instead of flipping through paper, I now simply scroll down. And while our generation is in an in-between phase as we’re getting to see the paper to digital revolution take place, I’m sure (or at least, hope) my kids will live in a paper-less world.



(image by trawin)

Of course, the world didn’t always rely on paper to spread knowledge. Before Gutenbreg invented the printing press, knowledge was spread in classes, in person. That’s why the invention of print was such a huge deal. It revolutionized the distribution of knowledge and created new forms of media which, in turn, created new industries and business models. Those are in the process of breaking today as we’re shifting to a digital world.
And once upon a time, long long ago, before the invention of writing, knowledge could only be documented, transferred and acquired orally. Just imagine! to learn something, people had to be in the same place at the same time. Once administrations became more complex and financial accounts and historic records outgrew human memory, writing was invented, and changed humanity forever.
Fast forward to the 21st century, and we’re experiencing another revolution. And as with the former ones, those are not only the mediums and the qunatities that are changing, and not even only the businesses and industries around those media, it’s the very core of human knowledge that is changing. What it is to know something. or to remember something. I’ve long claimed that our memory is changing as we now refer to the web as an expansion of our own memory. Recently, researchers at Columbia University have shown exactly that – our memory works differently in the age of Google.


And it doesn’t only have to refer to knowing (or remembering) facts or information. With facebook, twitter and the social web, how we know people is changing too. You can know someone virtually better than you know people you meet IRL (in real life). As Fred Wilson so eloquently put it: “in real life, as if there were anything other than real life“. That’s my point exactly. People keep making the distinction between real and virtual, when in fact they are one and the same. As we’re going through the information age revolution, our very minds and cognition are changing, being augmented by technology.

And what we’re seeing now is just the beginning. I, for one, can’t wait for the day I’ll finally be able to search google straight from my mind. Just imagine, information streams coming directly to your brain at will, and you sift through the results with your own neural activity. Doesn’t that make more sense than reaching out for your iPhone every time?

Memory – meet Google

OR: The Emergence of Referential Memory in the Google age

“Oh yeah, that reminds me of something I read, it was, what’s his name, during the 80’s, no, the 90’s. hmpf. Wait, I’ll google it”. How many times have you heard that? Felt that? Once a day? Once an hour? People are saying Google is ruining human knowledge. There’s constant talk about how the information age is changing, even harming, our brains. I believe by now it’s safe to say that the age of information not only is light-years away from the age of knowledge, but it also inherently moves it even farther away. As access to information becomes effortless, we no longer need to know things, but only how to find them. So what’s happening to our brains in the process?

What is Memory?

Traditionally, psychologists divide the human memory into two main types: implicit and explicit. Implicit memory refers to stuff we know but cannot quite point to how we know them or what it is to know them. The myth of the coca cola ads in the 60’s is a great example for that. Coca cola allegedly used what the psychologists call priming to raise awareness to their product. Embedding split second displays of a product into movies makes people think of it even though they couldn’t explain why as they wouldn’t remember seeing the images. But there’s no need to go to the extent of these subliminal messages. We are constantly swamped with massive amounts of information that we’re unaware of, yet that changes the way we perceive things. Whenever we read a newspaper, watch a movie or even talk to a friend, we’re presented with stereotypes and even prejudice that affects our judgment. Our brain is constantly being rewired with every stimulus we are exposed to, we can’t help it.

A different, more common type of implicit memory is procedural memory. Being the reason behind the coining of the phrase “It’s as easy as riding a bike”, procedural memory refers exactly to those types of actions and procedures that are engraved in our motor memories. These memories do not require active retrieval – i.e. remembering – but rather feel inherent in our very organs. Much like priming, tying a shoelace or driving a car do not necessarily come into one’s full awareness.

Explicit memory, on the other hand, refers to those memories whose retrieval is entirely conscious by nature. Think of any historical fact you’ve once studied and are trying to remember. A story your grandma told you as a kid or the name of a person you had just run into. These are all stuff that are stored in your brain and in order to retrieve them you use your explicit memory.


Enter a New Kind of Memory

Until recently, this historical division of explicit and implicit memory seemed to pretty much capture what was going on in our brains. These days, it seems to be out of date. As we are always online, we’ve become accustomed to use Google as an extension to our own explicit memory. Instead of only searching our brains for facts, we have an infinitely growing database of facts being indexed by Google at our immediate disposal. Mobile web or laptop, home, work or on-the-go, Google is always at our fingertips. And how do we search this enormous memory-base? As I see it, we do so using our procedural memory. Think of how you Google things – there’s usually a certain code behind what you’re looking for that you have to decipher, extract the keywords out of, and search for. Say I was looking for a talk I saw by someone whose name I can’t remember, but I can remember he was a professor at Carnegie Mellon who spoke sometime this year about gaming and design. All I had to do was search for exactly that, and the 3rd result I got was Jesse Schell’s amazing talk about gamifying life. Now, if I track back my actions I notice that this extraction of keywords and Google search came to me automatically. I didn’t have to contemplate but just search. Worst case scenario would be I see something weird in the results page and search again. Searching became automatic, much like riding a bike. So we’re using our procedural memory to search our augmented, Google based, explicit memory. And this is what I call Referential Memory. Much like a reference in a book, our brain holds an internal reference that points us to external content, in this case – web content. Referential memory is simply using our procedural memory to extract facts from our Google augmented explicit memories.

What next, you ask? How will referential memory change us as individuals? How will it change human kind? Well, whether be it a worrying decline in creativity, or the rise of collective intelligence, the implications are immense and can potentially altar society, people, intelligence – the world as we know it. But that’s a whole different story. For now, I’m merely hoping for some hard rock brain science type of evidence that referential memory actually exists and is not a fiction of my imaginative mind.