Introducing Synaptical Currency Theory – Assigning Value to Brain Capital

Introducing Synaptical Currency Theory – Assigning Value to Brain Capital


What has been the hardest problem you’ve had to solve in your life? As I step you through this question, just focus on the ones where you actually found a solution.

For some of you, this may have included things like finding a job, finding a cure for a disease or medical problem, or dealing with major family issues.

When you had to solve the problem, how much time, energy, and brainpower did you commit to coming up with an answer?

Now consider how different your life would have been if it only required half as much effort – half as much stress, anxiety, and mental turmoil.

In his book “Outliers,” Malcolm Gladwell focused on two key variables as to why people have become successful - effort and opportunity. The effort part coincides with what he calls the “10,000-Hour Rule” where true experts expend at least 10,000 hours studying and learning their craft, and that alone is not enough unless they also fall into the right opportunity.

Taking the “10,000-Hour Rule” a few steps further, how many synapse firings inside the brain have to occur to achieve the equivalent of this 10,000-hour mastery?

Assuming there is a physical limit to the number of times a synapse triggered signal can pass through the human brain in one day, the way we expend our “synaptical currency” becomes a crucial element in our personal success formula.

So how do we go about assigning monetary value to the finite resource I’m calling “synaptical currency” that will eventually determine our value in society?

How much is Brain Power Worth?

When it comes to finite resources, brainpower is an obvious one. Every one of us runs into natural barriers in our ability to consume and process information.

If we were able to place some sort of synapse monitor next to our heads that actually counted the number of signals passing through our neurotransmitters on a daily basis, a number that I’m sure varies widely from person to person; we would begin to see quantifiable limits on our individual capabilities.

It’s easy to speculate that those with higher limits are the brightest, but that’s probably not the case. What’s more important though is that there are limits, and how we expend any of our finite resources becomes a critical component to personal achievement.

“The Writer” by Pierre Jaquet-Droz

The Story of Pierre Jaquet-Droz

An eighteenth century watchmaker, Pierre Jaquet-Droz, considered by many to be the Albert Einstein of his age, became best known for the ultra sophisticated animated dolls, or automata, he designed using thousands of miniature gears and levers to guide their movements.

In this video, the BBC demonstrates one of his best-known automata, “The Writer.” Constructed between 1768 and 1774, Jaquet-Droz and his assistants used over 6,000 intricately crafted pieces to create a boyish looking doll, quill in hand, sitting a writing table. Simply wind the main spring and the boy comes alive.

With elaborate eye and hand movements, the boy carefully writes characters onto paper until his message is complete.

To make this even more impressive, Jaquet-Droz added a programmable wheel on The Writer’s backside so users could actually change the message the boy is writing. This is a form of programming that even predates Charles Babbage by several decades.

An amazing fete of human engineering, and it happened 240 years ago.

His intention was never to sell his automata, but rather to use them to lure in more customers for his watches. His marketing genius was only exceeded by his engineering prowess.

In today’s world, using computers and 3D printers, Jaquet-Droz would have been able to build a similar device in a fraction of the time. In other words, the amount of synaptical currency he spent would have been far less.

But for him, this was his greatest personal accomplishment.

Personal Accomplishments

What do you consider to be your greatest accomplishment in life?

This question is similar to the previous one I asked about the hardest problem you’ve had to solve because it forces you to become introspective, viewing yourself from the inside out.

Most people have great difficulty with this question because what we’ve personally accomplished seems rather minor to what most would consider worthy of being called the “greatest.”

However, if you reframe the question around what you’d like to accomplish, and compare it to what you have already accomplished, you begin to see the gap between the two.

In the past, most people’s greatest accomplishment was simply survival. The vast majority of their day was spent on finding food, water, shelter, and staying one step ahead of predators, extreme weather, or whatever it was that could kill them.

In that era, very little time was dedicated to what we would term a significant accomplishment in today’s world.

As society progressed and became more systematized, far less time was being dedicated to survival, allowing more energy to be directed towards more esoteric endeavors like what we want to accomplish.

How do speed up our neural signal transmissions?

Twice as Much in Half the Time 

Do all of our synaptical expenditures have value? Perhaps internally to ourselves, but not externally.

We spend our synaptical currency both when we learn and when we work. We also spend it on fun and entertainment, every time we make a decision, and even while we are sleeping.

Most of us hold little regard for how we often squander this limited resource until it comes to work. The synaptical currency that we sell to others, in the form of work, typically has to come with a paycheck commensurate to the value of our work.

As we add unique and different forms of automation to our lives, the amount of synaptical currency we dedicate to accomplishing individual tasks begins to decline, and our output becomes less brain intensive.

According to neuroscientist Astra Bryant, a rough number for neural signal transmissions in the average brain ranges from 86 billion to 17.2 trillion actions per second.

With the automation of work, the expenditure of synaptical currency per accomplishment will decline, but so should our expenditures for learning. If we can accomplish twice as much in half the time, we should also be capable of learning at a comparably quicker pace.

Final Thoughts

Certainly I don’t claim to be a brain expert even though I’ve been using mine for well over 10,000 hours. I’m not even an expert on using my own brain since there are countless ways I could be using it more efficiently.

If we take Gladwell’s 10,000-Hour Rule and subdivide it into synaptical transmissions, we will end up with a very large number. But even though it’s a massively large number, it’s not infinite.

Similarly if we assign a dollar value to our synaptical currency, yes it would seem infinitesimally tiny in comparison to the number of neurotransmissions needed to equal a single dollar. But again, it’s not zero.

Over the coming decades we will be creating a world that works with exponentially greater precision than how we operate today. Accomplishments that can be completed through a fraction of today’s synaptical expenditure will give rise to far greater accomplishments in the future.

So will “synaptical currency” eventually be used to determine our value in society? Yes, I think it will.

Admittedly, my theory of synaptical currency is far from complete and I’d love to hear your thoughts on better ways to frame it. Or if you think I’m off in left field, please let me know that as well.

By Futurist Thomas Frey

Author of “Communicating with the Future” – the book that changes everything





13 Responses

  1. Gavin

    I’m not sure if a “synaptical currency” value could be used to compare one human brain to another because the outcome would vary from task performed, previous experience, time of day etc. Maybe you could use the values as rough indicators to provide insight into what you or a person is best and most efficiently good at.

    What bothers me about set value’s is people have Eureka moments, flashes of inspiration, creativity and genius. Could it be worked out these Eureka moments have a rule similar to Malcolm’s 10,000 hour rule?

    When machines can think will they have Eureka moments or will they just be creative in a linear fashion related to processing speed?

  2. FuturistSpeaker


    You raise some great questions, none of which I have good answers for. I’ve often wondered if our flashes of inspiration also correlate with flashes of synapse firings in our brains.

    As you’ve alluded to, my guess is that there is a wide range in how human brains perform and it varies based on things like age, time of day, sleep patterns, other people surrounding you, the activity you’re involved in, circadian rhythms, diet, exercise, political party, and much more. (Just kidding political party :-)

    I also rather doubt machines will ever have “epiphany moments” like people do. But that would also be a great discussion topic for some of our programming students.

    Thomas Frey

  3. Christina

    Hallo Thomas,

    The greatest asset in life is the human brain. Only a minority (taking into account the 7 billion human beings on this planet) are given the opportunity to develop their asset. A sad situation in life.

    Thanks for all the wonderful articles. Enjoy to read your writings and the excellent language you use.

    We definitely have much in common as human beings and we are both fascinated by the future.


  4. FuturistSpeaker


    Thanks for the kind words. You’re right, a full 23% of kids growing up don’t attend any school at all, and many more only receive a poor education at best. Our connected world can change all that, but it’s not an easy problem to solve. The future is our’s to create.

    Wishing you the best, and we’ll meet again …sometime in the future,

    Thomas Frey

  5. This is very interesting.
    If your brain is like a muscle and gets stronger with more and varied uses, do you believe that if we can start measuring the brains neuronal firings we’ll be able to eventually map out the quickest way to b from a based on least effort?

    I also had a different thought that is somewhat related. We created computers and programming, wouldn’t we base that off our own brains and their functions? I am curious is it possible that we created computers and they are completely alien to us? or is it more likely that we can learn a ton about how our own brains work based off programming languages and how computers function because they are a product of our own minds, and in nature the byproduct of creation is a slightly different copy of the creator? What part of our brains do computers represent?

  6. Joyce Redlon

    Thanks for sharing this topic Thomas. Don’t we already see synaptical currency in society to some extent? In the wide range of businesses and industries that depend on fast and smooth flow of operations, those who have the knowledge and can perform technology functions faster and better than others are more valued and earn higher incomes. It will certainly increase in the future as the technology advances and requires human advancement as well.

  7. Gavin

    I wonder if epiphany moments are at the core of useful AI.

    Without epiphany to guide and direct thought processes whether the epiphany is actually true or false would AI output just be the equivalent of it regurgitating inputted knowledge and the 1000 monkey at a typewriter theorem?

  8. Dear Thomas:
    I am quite disappointed that someone of your stature would take this road and assign ECONOMIC TERMS to something as important as the human brain. This is just one term that will soon be bandied about as people try to place value on AI over Humans. When we try to monetize all of what we are and what we do? We diminish the full HOLISTIC value of a thought. If indeed “synaptical currency” will come to be the way we are valued in SOCIETY, then we may as well start killing off the old people and the feeble now. Starting with my mother whose synapses have been snapped by amylase leading to a deflation of her “synpatical currency”. Our purpose is not just to think about our work — whether selling hamburgers or selling vacations in space. As sentient self aware BE-ings… we DO more than that.. We laugh? We Love? We Pray? What is the synaptical current of that? Those who know better should do better.. Thomas I expect better than this from you.. As we say in Jamaica.. “Wheel and come again” meaning do it over…

  9. And Uncle Thomas.. I am waiting to see if you are brave enough to post my dissenting comment… Yes.. You are OFF IN LEFT FIELD.. for someone of your stature.. PLEASE DONT DO THIS!

  10. FuturistSpeaker


    Thanks for weighing in on this. In my mind it less about monetizing it and more about how we quantify our efforts. But I also never imagined anyone would want to apply “right” and “wrong” distinctions to what I view as the inevitable evolution of our ability to apply precision to our previously vague world.

    Yes, I can see how big data has a way of reducing everything to numbers and draining the “human-ness” from our existence. And many in the business world will tend to dehumanize people as they reduce our brain currency to an ROI algorithm. But it could work just the opposite. It could show how little we know about measuring our brain against the effort we exert. It could create far more mysteries than answers.

    As for me, I don’t see it as a “right” and “wrong” issue, just a possibility.

    Thomas Frey

  11. Carmella Laughlin

    Dear Mr. Frey,

    Thank you for yet another illuminating article! I find your website to be inspiring and very helpful as a dining stop for my brain. So thank you for that.

    I too have read Gladwell’s book, Outliers, and I found it particularly insightful concerning how training hours/practice and opportunity shape success. I think you raise a valid point in observing how society’s shifting paradigm (the advent of automation) may provide a greater opportunity for us to devote our minds to accomplishing more in less time. You are right, while Jacques-Droz’s “Writer” continues to represent an exceptional display of mechanics and artistry, the truth of the matter is that his work reflects the limits of the technology of his time. Most of his brain power and opportunity, by historical necessity, was relegated to gears and cogs. And this of course does not even begin to broach how his work in his lifetime could be considered brilliant whereas five hundred years ago it could have gotten him burned at the stake!

    Ours is an age of MRI’s, 3-D printers, stemcells, etc. Because our learning also rests on the foundations of past triumphs, I suspect we are able to begin our “10,000 hours” with an assumed “x amount of hours of experience” by virtue of our modern education systems and science. What we take for granted as the knowable and observable world allows us to hone our minds to concepts and technologies that the likes of Jacques-Droz could only dream of. That said, it is a fair question whether increased automation will result in less work but accelerated thought (or lessons learned in half the time), or less work and less thought/learning.

    I understand the concept of synaptic expenditure, as you raise it, is not a complete thought. There are multiple factors that one could take into account, or which might need to be accounted for, in order to make an accurate statement concerning synatpic currency. However, I think you have stumbled onto one of the more pressing issues/concepts that neuroscience has yet to reveal to us and which, in the future, it might be able to answer. For instance, what are the most important brain functions? How does that relate or get quantified when comparing synaptic transmissions and intention (we use different parts of the brain for prayer, exercise, reading, sleeping, work, etc)? And what are the parameters of judging synaptic currency? Should we ever get to the point where we do map the entire human brain and its synaptic transmissions, quantifying the minute and major movements of the brain may provide data that runs contrary to our hypotheses. For example, the synaptic transmissions and neural activity used in praying might be shown to be more efficient or allow greater malleability for learning than the tranmissions observed when someone is doing a repetitive task or even observing another person doing the task. Is it possible then for synaptic currency to operate on two levels–at the level of what the science reveals and at the level of what the human deduces? Furthermore, another issue Gladwell raises in conjunction with the idea of training and opportunity is base assumptions of intelligence. One only needs to be smart enough to accomplish x,y,z. A hundred certified genuises can produce zero notable accomplishments on the global scale compared to the rhymes and “swagger” of a somewhat educated music artist/performer. Is the one greater than the many in this case, or does the culture at large operate as the crucible of opportunity?
    Another issue that could be raised is our biological reality. Some scientists have made the observation that despite our culture and multiple civilizations, we are still basically the product of millions of years of biological evolution. What we deem important, and therefore, what we even make room for by way of others to seize opportunity, may be the result of a much larger ingrained program that we don’t have complete control over. While we may be completely aware that some of our biological programming is not conducive to our modern technology and vice versa (hello global warming), the fact remains that we soldier on in an unstable truce with our “primitive” sentiments. The point I am trying to raise here is that even with our practice and opportunity, what we value as success is still a mechanism of our subjectivity. The true value of any thought, whether it be judged by the individual, government, or corporation may be impossible to measure with any accuracy because we are still a species that does not know itself and may never know itself except in retrospect.

  12. While I love the idea that we might assign value to brain capital and our synapses, I’m here to remind all of us that we laud the brain in our society, and tend to forget that the whole body is part of our thinking apparatus, not just our grey matter. In fact, if you look at the work of Antonio Damasio, who coined the term “somatic marker hypothesis,” you’ll find that our aha’s and insights, this brilliance of our wisdom, really comes from both mind AND body. We feel and sense with our whole organism. I would love to see some form of calculation that shows the value of the brain alone, and then one that shows the value of brain and body. Research from the Institute for HeartMath is showing how important the heart is in our knowing, and the work of Dr. Michael Gershon demonstrates that our enteric nervous system, our gut, is also a powerhouse of insight. And the work of Dr. Candace Pert, before her death last year, demonstrated that we have neurotransmitters of emotion (we need emotions for decision making, per Damasio and others) not only in our head, but also in our mind.

    So my hope is that we will all start embracing our whole organism, not just our brains, as the personal source of insights and wisdom. Let’s value that.

  13. Personally I disagree with the idea that a majority of society will assign value to brain capital and our synapses. Society seems to have a lot of smart people who do not contribute much. Those that create and deliver value are more valuable than people who are “just smart”. For example, there are probably a reasonably large number of people with IQ’s (more synapses) higher than Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. We value Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for his determination and his ability to bring people together and share his vision of the future. We value Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. not for how smart he was, but for the impact he had on society.

    For further discussion I would argue that if the brain creates synapses every time we learn, we would have to be hooked up to some technological system that counts how many synapses we create throughout the day. While a synapse counting machine seems possible, does it seem worth while to create?

    At the rate technology is advancing robots are being programmed to learn. These robots are replacing both low and high skilled labor. Robots have the advantage of learning quicker than humans because they can download information from the internet. In order to compete for jobs, humans may become more like robots. Humans may start implanting devices that allow us to connect to the internet in ways we currently do not. As humans move towards becoming cyborgs what we value will likely change.

    How we determine individuals’ values in society will depend on what we value. So as a society what do you think we will value 5, 10, 25 years from today?

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