Friday, October 1, 2010

I connect therefore I am?

I came across this TED video of Sebastian Seung today. Seung thinks that our memories, our personality, our intellect --the 'stuff' that makes us who we are -- may be encoded in the connections between our neurons. He calls that our "connectome." As we grow and mature our personality changes slowly because our experiences change our connectome -- with new neurons and synapses growing and others dwindling and being lost. "The mere act of thinking can change our connectome."

It occurred to me as I watched Seung describe his "Quixotic" quest to map the human neural connectome, that personal learning networks and social networks could be an external manifestation of what he thinks is going on inside our brains. If "I am more than my genes," then humans are more than the individual subunits (i.e. people) that make up the world's population. (If you haven't guessed, I'm taking the Globalization and Advocacy course!)

If my metaphor works and the stuff of our humanity encoded in the relationships -- the connections -- that thread us all together into a collective, then every action -- however casual or seemingly isolated -- changes the connectome of the whole. This in turn reaffirms the power of the individual to change the pattern of relationships in the world, and then there is no individual action without a consequence for the network of relationships that make up the whole. ('Heady' stuff!!)

Seung aspires to map the connectome of the human brain with it's 100 billion neurons. It ought to be comparatively easy to map the connections between the mere 6.8+ billion individuals on our planet. I wonder what a connectome of the human race would look like.

It could be an interesting task to do one for family or a classroom first and then use the same kind of imagery as Seung did in his presentation (7:35-8:24) to show the scale of those interactions compared to the size of the macrocosm of the human family. The only thing I didn't like about Seung's images was that as he scaled up from the single neuron to the mouse brain and then the human brain, the original slice appeared to dwindle into insignificance and then disappear altogether. How could kids change the image to both preserve the sense of scale and at the same time represent the importance of one synapse or one person to the connectome of the whole?

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