Thinking about brains - RSA

Thinking about brains


  • Social brain

Over the next few days and weeks I am planning to use my blog to outline the argument I intend to make in my second annual chief executive’s lecture to the RSA.

Last year my subject was ‘pro-social behaviour’. The argument, in a nutshell, was that we will not be able successfully to respond to future challenges and opportunities unless we recognise that we as citizens need to change our attitudes and behaviours. I argued for a political discourse that was less ‘Government-centric’ - what should those in power be doing for us - and more ‘citizen-centric’ - what do we have to do to achieve the things that we want.

Since last year there have been a number of further contributions to thinking about citizen behaviour. The most recent is a short pamphlet from DEMOS featuring essays about public behaviour from leading politicians. The pamphlet is edited by Duncan O’Leary, who also pens an interesting concluding chapter. O’Leary argues that the utilitarian argument for intervening to change behaviours (in areas from parenting to public health) should be supplemented (and in same cases tempered) by an account of how we enhance the capacity of all citizens to feel in control of their lives as individuals and members of communities.

O’Leary is right. For my lecture I chose the unwieldy phrase ‘pro-social behaviour’ to signal that thinking about future citizenship should start from a positive question about human capacity. This is the idea I want to build on in this year’s lecture.

I am interested in two dimensions of human development. The first element concerns individual human capacity and, in particular, what we beginning to understand about the content, adaptability and idiosyncrasies of our cognitive processes.

I will argue that we are entering ‘an era of neurological reflexivity’, by which I mean a time when we can begin to adapt behaviours and policies to a richer understanding of how our brains (and not just our conscious minds) work.

Observer readers will have seen a major article yesterday about IQ and whether and how it can be enhanced. This is just part of a bigger debate about how we can shape our brains to better adapt us to today and tomorrow’s world.

I want to link this idea to a theme I have explored in blogs and articles earlier this year; new collectivism. The claim here is that people are willing – are indeed enthusiastic – about working with others to create a better future but that they want to do this ways which fit with modern lifestyles and expectations.

I am not as clear as I need to be about how to link these two ideas but that’s one of the things I hope to work through in coming blogs.

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