By Anna Vorontsova

Tiffany Shlain discusses her new short film, Brain Power, due for release this month.

She is a filmmaker, founder of the Webby Awards, co-founder of the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences and according to Newsweek she is one of the leading “women shaping the 21st century.” Her new short film examines an important issue in today’s age, the global brain of the internet and the importance of enriching it while it is in its early stages of life, as well as connecting it to nurturing children’s brains. It is the second film in a short film series titled Let it Ripple: Mobile Films for Global Change. There will be a series of 16 films over the next 4 years.

Her interest in the evolution of the Internet and the brain began at an early age, leading her to embarking on a creative journey in producing Brain Power. The analogy in the film between a child’s brain and the Internet in the early stages of development displays the importance of taking care of the youngest brains on the planet. Tiffany and her team worked closely with Harvard and the University of Washington neuroscientists, as well as early childhood brain specialists to gather the most recent ideas and research available.

Currently only 30% of the global population is online and ten years from now Tiffany believes every person who desired to be online will be, this will add to a world of a vast array of possibilities in solving problems. Each of the short films use Cloud Filmmaking technique, in which communities can be a part of the production by sending in their artwork and suggestions. The submissions will then possibly be added to the free customized version of the film that will be sent back to the community and organizations. The first short film, A Declaration of Interdependence, out of this series has over one-hundred customized versions. Brain Power will also be available in other customized versions as well.


NCW: You first began with your award winning film, Connected and now your new short film Brain Power will be released soon, tell me how you came up with this idea for a film? What sparked your interest in technology and the brain?

Tiffany: My late father, Dr. Leonard Shlain, was a surgeon with a special interest in the brain who also applied this knowledge to bestselling books that proposed theories about the brain in relationship to art, science, and literacy. My father focused on the biological construction of the brain and its evolution and effects on culture. My mother, Carole Lewis, focused on the heart, and the emotional aspects of the brain. She returned to school to get her PhD in Psychology when I was eight. I have vivid memories of the two of us doing homework together and her teaching me that emotional connection drives everything we do. Since my parents were divorced, I went from my dad’s house where he would write diagrams on napkins at the dinner table about split-brain experiments, and then to my mom’s house where she would tell me stories about her patients’ psychological behavior. Thinking back on these formative years, at the core of what they both taught me was that we, as humans, seek connection. That connection not only drives everything we do, but has been essential in our evolution as a species.

NCW: Brain Power examines how to nurture children’s brains and connects it with the brain the Internet is creating. What do you think is the most important information you want your viewers to understand and learn from the film?

Tiffany: The analogy suggests that both a child’s brain and the Internet are in critical stages of early development — and that we need to be very mindful about how we nurture both. During these early years, for example, a child’s brain is making as many connections as possible — at its peak it will have a quadrillion (1000 trillions) connections. And every interaction a child has creates those connections. Then the brain will begin pruning the connections that aren’t needed — or aren’t reinforced.

So literally every time you make eye contact with a child or make them laugh, every word you speak to a child — you are literally growing their brain, making the connections for creativity and adaptability stronger. And of course that goes the other way, too. Every moment of neglect or violence forms and reinforces those connections in the brain.

It’s the same for the Internet. We are literally growing the Internet every time we interact with it. So we have to be mindful of the way we use it — it’s like a figurative global brain, growing exponentially and making as many connections as possible, before it begins pruning the ones that aren’t needed. Ultimately it’s all about creating a better future. And a better future all starts with nurturing the youngest brains on the planet.

NCW: What surprising facts did you learn after making Brain Power?

Tiffany: I think the most astounding fact is that a child’s brain has so many times more connections than an adult’s brain (the brain reaches its peak in terms of synapses for second, or per neuron, at the age of 2). It’s incredibly empowering to think about how much we can help shape the future of the world — if we really embrace the importance of nurturing children’s brains, we will absolutely create a better world.

NCW: What are some of the unique challenges you faced while making this film? 

Tiffany: Making a film about new brain research about children in under 10 minutes was challenging. There is so much interesting research to include. But we love a challenge like that. We have made our 80 minute film Connected and several other short films. In many ways distilling a script down to a short film is the ultimate creative challenge.

NCW: How do you incorporate sustainability into your life?

Tiffany: Living in Northern California makes incorporating sustainability quite simple in the basic ways: recycling, composting, buying local and organic, driving energy-efficient vehicles, the list goes on. But I think the biggest thing I’ve done to incorporate sustainability in my life has been about technology. I’ve started practicing what I call “Technology Shabbats” with my family. Every Friday at sundown, our whole family disconnects until Saturday night. No cell phones, no Internet, no television, no iPads, no multi-tasking. We disconnect completely—or should I say we connect completely: with ourselves and each other. I am learning that turning off technology is just as powerful as turning it on, and our children are growing up learning that as well. Technology can be so enticing and overwhelming, but we also need to remember how important it is to be fully present with the people you love and also to be alone and quiet.

NCW: How does a child’s relationship with technology affect their development?

Tiffany: So much of this technology is so new so there isn’t as much long term research. But Common Sense Media website has some great guidelines for this.

NCW: What have your viewers taught you and continue to teach you? 

Tiffany: The exciting thing about our new way of filmmaking, Cloud Filmmaking, is that our viewers are now our collaborators. Each person brings their own set of skills and imagination and perspective (all of course a result of the ways the connections in their brains form over time). And I always love watching for patterns — the fact that audiences around the world were all asking the same question in Q&As after Connected, “what is all this technology doing to our brains,” led to this film. Or take Arab Spring or Occupy Wall Street. They’re all examples of the global brain in action. Trends, movements, patterns — they all reveal a little more about what it means to be human.

We hope your readers if they are interested can learn about some new films that we are making where we are asking people to send in videos. It only takes people a couple of minutes and in the end we are able to make a film that draws upon so many different perspectives from our viewers who have become our collaborators.

NCW: What advice would you give for parents with growing children?

Tiffany: Be present. Every interaction counts. So every word, every second of eye contact, every time you really make your child laugh, every time you and a child mirror each other’s actions, every bit of kindness they observe, every hug, every minute of playing together, every new person they meet ….every interaction can form connections in your child’s brain. You are literally growing your child’s brain by being present in their life.

Watch her film Connected and several other short films that expose the importance of technology and nurturing it in the early stages. To learn further about the research behind the film, check out the TED book that will be released along with the film and her website HERE .