The (Mind) Games: are you training your brain enough? - RSA

The (Mind) Games: are you training your brain enough?

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  • Picture of Gaia Marcus
    Gaia Marcus
    Former Senior Researcher, Connected Communities
  • Social brain
  • Communities

It’s not just your legs that benefit from a good work-out: they say that learning new things is the key to keeping that most treasured possession: your mind. How often do you give yours a good work out? How often do you learn new things, challenge your known things, challenge your assumptions and your words? My word is ‘networks’, my assumptions leftish by way of human rights, and I know that I do not challenge these enough.

One of the wonderful things about working at the RSA is that you are always learning. Indeed there are so many ideas and experts and projects and concepts floating around that sometimes you feel a need to stop learning; to draw a protective line around that which you do know – mother hen-like – and say “stop, these are my known things, stop muddling them up!”

As it never pays to count one’s chicks (however well-known they may be) it was interesting to read Paul Ormerod’s new book – Positive Linkingand chair his RSA talk about it.  We have very different takes on what exactly a network is, and it was fascinating to see how he got to his. As someone who went from being a social historian, to Latin Americanist, to human right-ist to sociology-tinged social network scientist of the Portes-ian school, my understanding of networks is as follows:

Networks are not a thing; they are a way of understanding and representing the world. A social networks perspective seeks to understand the way in which discrete units – nodes – are connected and affected by the relationships between them."

But whilst we may pretend otherwise, social network analysts do not have the monopoly on the network, be it social or otherwise. Facebook and Co stole it to mean ‘online platform where we steal all your data and you get the illusion of having friends’; Economists have long meant ‘Network Effects’ to be ‘that value created by economies of scale on the demand side': my mobile phone becomes valuable when everyone else has one; often Network just means ‘group of people somewhat interacting with each other’.

What is clear is that whatever you understand a network to be, human beings tend towards connecting, interacting and sharing, and this tendency shapes the human experience to a large extent. Human beings, connected, are often good: we are forever creating on the shoulders of giants, and creativity, sharing, generosity and compassion make our human experience the wonderful journey it can sometimes be.  Human beings, connected, are also often bad: the more we hear something, the more we believe it to be true; sometimes leading fellow human down twisty filter bubbles in which we – us – are all that is good in the world, and they – them – are all that is bad.

So to help keep my mind active, and to use the good things about human beings connecting tendencies to challenge the bad bits – excessive reliance on my filter-bubble and my known things – I’m helping out with a (non-RSA) project that is trying to break down filter bubbles and share knowledge outside, around and between our little Silos: The Thought Menu.  We'll be covering everything from Revisioning Europe, to totally sustainable mobile phones, to what exactly the New Aesthetic is.

It kicks off this Friday with a jam-packed evening of a communal soup dinner and talks about everything from teenage trust online, meditation in prisons, how creativity can help with climate change, and how to get great projects done for little or no money. Given the tile of this post, you won’t be surprised to hear that I’m most looking forward to Dr Tamara Russel and her talk on ‘What happens when I train my brain: The neuroscience of meditation training’.

Please do feel free to come along, and please tell us all: how are you training your mind?

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  • Love this post, and looking forward to being there to see the action in person!

  • HI Gaia,

    You've managed to touch on a bunch of things I find fascinating, all in one post.

    I'm reading a great article from 'Science' at the moment - assessing the success of various brain trainings for creativity, flexibility, self-control and discipline in children. (It's titled 'Interventions Shown to Aid Executive Function Development in Children 4 to 12 Years Old' - and covers everything from computer games to mindfulness to martial arts, comparing Tools of the Mind to Montessori and much else).

    I heard about the paper from Prof Terrie Moffitt - who leads the amazing Dunedin longitudinal study of health and development (which has followed everyone born in Dunedin, New Zealand, in 1972).

    Her team have found that self-control around age 5 appears to predict crucial outcomes in health, education, crime, longevity etc. It's amazing stuff.

    If we could change people's self-control just a little bit, it could save billions - and enable happier, longer lives.

    Prompted by a query of mine, Terrie even found out that the measures the original 1972 researchers began using to assess self-control were partly based on the adult development model of Jane Loevinger - which was mentioned in the RSA's 'Beyond the Big Society' paper on active citizenship, and can point us towards ways that maturation in self-control can be assisted in adults, as well as the children mentioned in the Science article.

    “Is it time to teach self-control skills to all children?,” Terrie asked at a recent lecture in London about her self-control findings.

    Teaching self-control could be an interesting societal goal for this century - in the same way literacy education was a century ago, when it stopped being alright not to be able to read.

    Perhaps there needs to be a new social ethos that we need to be able to control ourselves and our children, she said. (The power of advertising, easy availability of high-fat foods, sedentary jobs etc make self-control far more important now, than it might once have been).

    Maybe you should offer to do some network analysis for Prof Moffit? (They realised that they'd overlooked the analysis of creativity, entrepreneurialism etc - and the first Dunedin results are due on those topics pretty soon! Maybe they need to look at network connections.).

    There will be a TV programme about the Dunedin longitudinal study later in the year - don't miss it.

    I'm fascinating by Rob Cross' work on energising and de-energising connections in organisational networks - the idea that we might be able to map 'energy' (if anyone's spotted anything good along these lines, do let me know).

    ... and you even mention the neuroscience of meditation. As a reasonably committed meditator these days, I'd love to know more about what's happening to me... in me?! ;-)

    I'm fascinated by the changes that mindfulness can bring - especially in the real-world (where we are particularly 'automatic') rather than on a meditation cushion.

    I can't actually make Dr Tamara Russel's event, and hope someone will report back on it, somewhere!



    Matthew Kalman Mezey

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  • Thanks Louise! 

    Have you ever seen Sarah Kay's Ted talk "If I should have a daughter"... She has a great line on what your three known things are.

  • Lovely blog Gaia - perfectly summing up the joy and difficulty of working at the RSA. You will be hearing the refrain "Stop! These are my known things!" across the office on occasion for certain! 

    Hope to come along to the Thought Menu during the second weekend...

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