Originally Published: December 27, 2009
How to make brain facts stickier
Here is an image currently floating on the front page of Reddit.
What is going on in this image?
The graphic and associated text suggests that our minds are vast expanses of potential, with a billion synapses in the space occupied by a single grain of sand. It is a powerful idea. But the message conveyed here is not sticky.
You will say “Wow!” without really knowing why, and in 30 minutes you will have forgotten all about it. We have trouble conceptualizing large numbers. Yes, these are big, that is quite obvious, but we cannot pull them within our sphere of relevance.
Alternative message #1: If you had a dollar for every synapse in your brain, you would be wealthier than every person in the United States. Combined.
Notice that in this one, there are no numbers involved. And it is clearly impressive. But it may still not be getting at the core idea behind the message.
Alternative message #2: Imagine every person on the planet talking at the same time. It would be the same number of communication synapses that can be found in an area of your brain equivalent to six grains of sand.
This one takes a little more effort to grok, but implies the immense number of synapse connections without bringing big numbers in. I am not a huge fan of either alternative message, but I think both do a more effective job making the core idea sticky.