We are neural network code
A connectome is a comprehensive map of neural connections in the brain, and may be thought of as its “wiring diagram”.
In a recent New York Times article discussing neuroscientist Sebastian Seung’s work on connectome mapping, Seung used the image of a riverbed to help the writer understand how our selves are defined by the neural connections in our brains:
Seung told me to imagine a river, the roiling waters of the Colorado. That, he said, is our experience from moment to moment. Over time, the water leaves its mark on the riverbed, widening bends, tracing patterns in the rock and soil. In a sense, the Grand Canyon is a memory of where the Colorado has been. And of course, that riverbed shapes the flow of the waters today. There are two selves then, river and riverbed. The river is all tumult and drama. The river demands attention. Yet it’s the riverbed that Seung wants to know…The basic idea (which borrows from computer science) is that simple units, connected in the right way, can give rise to surprising abilities (memory, recognition, reasoning). In computer chips, transistors and other basic electronic components are wired together to make powerful processors. In the brain, neurons are wired together — and rewired. Every time a girl sees her dog (wagging tail, chocolate brown fur), a certain set of neurons fire; this churn of activity is like Seung’s Colorado River. When these neurons fire together, the connections between them grow stronger, forming a memory — a part of Seung’s riverbed, the connectome that shapes thought. The notion is deeply counterintuitive: It’s natural to think of a network functioning as a river system does, a set of streams that can carry messages, but downright odd to suggest that there are parts of the riverbed that encode “Labrador retriever.”
“The infant brain is coding all the time”
So if we are essentially neural network code, when is most of it written? Apparently, almost entirely when we are young children, as the graph below illustrates.
Consequently, it makes sense that researchers can show that children who received more attention and nurturing at home tend to have higher IQs. Children who are more cognitively stimulated perform better on language tasks, and those nurtured more warmly do better on memory tasks.
Parents claim they care about this stuff, but they aren’t sure what to do about it
In a recent Babycenter poll, parents identified their #1 fear as such:
The Fear: I’m afraid my child won’t get the education and opportunities she needs to reach her potential.
But unfortunately, parents aren’t sure what to do about this fear, often norming to what other parents have done. Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner explore this issue in their book, Freakonomics, concluding that many of the things parents do to ensure their children’s success, from moving to a better neighborhood to exposing them to classical music, have little impact.
But as I have noted, the research is there to be utilized if people know where to look. And there are pilots being covered in the press where that research is being put to work in order to help kids build their neural networks during early childhood.
The need exists for clear direction so that parents don’t miss out on a critical opportunity for their children to code the best versions of themselves in their neural networks. Code that will define the entirety of their lives. Of course, making that happen will require that parents rewire their own routines as well.