Whoever wrote the playbook, somehow managed to design and script my earliest learnings as solo acts. I studied for and took reading and math tests and AP exams and SATs all by my lonesome. The kids who generally did the best on those tests though, usually worked at home or in the library with one or several study buddies, or with paid coaches. But not me. I could have used some help in those early years, but I didn’t know it, and I didn’t know how to ask for it.

To this day, I hate to ask for help. Whenever I have to, my body takes on all the neurophysiological symptoms of a limbic hijacking – my heart rate increases, my mouth gets dry, my palms get sweaty and my mind goes numb. It frequently prevents me from playing well with others. Any of us who are living, loving, learning, growing human beings all need help from time to time. The good news: skillfully asking for help needn’t be a big deal. Asking for help is teachable and learnable, and easily integratable into our personal neural histories. For optimal brain development, the earlier we learn, and the more practice we have helping others and being helped by others, the better. It’s the Golden Rule of Social Neuroscience. And there’s the rub.

Institutes of Solo Learning

In the graduate school where I teach, students are required to do original research and write a doctoral dissertation pretty much as solo investigators. I’m not a big fan of this degree requirement (perhaps because my dissertation took me ten years to complete?). Yes, our students have a committee that offers some degree of guidance, but mostly we offer structure and admin direction. Students take classes in research design and methodology and are supposed to learn to take organized, sequential steps in their research, but by and large students are on their own for the bulk of the project. I think they’d be better served instead, if they at least had the option to practice playing well with others, that is, they were free to join up with two or ten other students to do a collaborative, joint research project if they so chose. The world would be better off as well. I can easily imagine the learning exponentially multiplied by all the inspired brains working in concert to complete a project designed and intended to make a positive, measurable impact on the world. Students would probably also learn a lot about creative conflict resolution and the need to honor and embrace differences of opinion, all proven neural enhancers.  I really don’t get the point of working solo, especially when a preponderance of professional academic papers later on are researched, written and published in conjunction with other colleagues.

At a talk I attended at the Carnegie Foundation, John Seeley Brown, the former head of the innovative research company, Xerox Parc, elucidated two points that have remained with me four years later: all the knowledge currently known in the world will very soon be available on the internet for free; new research and knowledge will have to be paid for. The other point was that higher education will be superceded by “communities of practice” – groups of passionate people with mutual interests playing well together, inspiring one another to wild new learning. It’s already happening in many places around the world.

Peppy Le Bot

My friend Patrick hangs out with a group like Brown identifies. Patrick is passionate about robots and he recently presented his own creation, Peppy Le Bot to the NASA/Ames Robotics Group. This is a group not unlike the Homebrew Computer Club that started the personal computer revolution in the 1980s. I’ve been privy to bear witness to Peppy’s inception and developmental evolution, and it’s been astonishing, if not a bit discomfiting to witness. Check Peppy out here. The point though, is that this is how learning will take place more and more in the future: like-minded people with shared interests, cooperating with and helping other like-minded people. And the earlier we can get our kids exposed to such “communities of practice,” the easier it will be for them later on. And even old dogs can learn to play well with others in mutual interest groups later in life, as organizations like Exploritas and Patrick’s work so wonderfully demonstrate.

So, here’s the takeaway: I’m convinced that any replication in the real world of optimal brain processes, like those that involve new learning, manageable growth, connectivity and integration, are generally a good thing. I believe it’s one of the reasons innovations like mobile phones, Facebook, Twitter and ChatRoulette have all gone viral, circling the world in record time: they generally replicate healthy single brains working and playing well in concert. And one day I hope to wake up and find all the countries on the planet working in a similar kind of  integrated harmony like all the different areas of the brain have the potential to. Call it my Neuro-Gaia Hypothesis: as each of our individual brains go, so goes the world. And if Berkeley Ph.D. Jane McGonigal has her TED-talking way, it will be an integrated harmony of Collaborative Gamers spending 21 billion hours a week leading the way.