Thinking about thinking - RSA

Thinking about thinking


  • Social brain

This time last week I said I would start using the blog to discuss the ideas I am developing for my second annual Chief Executive’s lecture, due to take place here at JAS on June 30th.

A key theme is what I call neurological reflexivity. But I’d be the first to admit that this concept needs a great deal more work. The notion is that advances in related fields of inquiry and activity together amount to what could become a paradigm shift. One way of putting this is that instead of being concerned primarily with what we think about the world and how we act on this we may increasingly be concerned with how we think about the world.

By ‘what we think’ I mean conscious thought expressed through the always and ever present ‘voice’ in our heads, and though intentional verbal and written communication. By ‘how we think’ I mean the ways in which the unconscious processes of our brains condition our thoughts and behaviours.

There have been advances in a number of fields which are concerned with the how of thinking:

Evolutionary psychology and anthropology have provided important insights into physiological (and cultural) determinants (and variants) in the working of the brain.

Neuroscience is starting to help us understand the workings of the most complex organism in the known universe (the brain). Have a look at Christopher de Charms on TED for a recent example of the advances being made.

Behavioural economics, social psychology and empirical sociology are providing new insights into the patterns and idiosyncrasies of human behaviours. This includes:

• the way our minds trick us (for example, making us think our thoughts precede action when on closer examination it is clear that the action precedes the thought)

•  systematic irrationality (for example, we are much more resistant to putting aside £50 for a good purpose now than we are to committing to putting it aside next week)

• the way unconscious preferences lead to social outcomes (for example, ethnic zoning is less a consequence of racist attitude or policy and more the aggregate consequence of each individual’s instinctive desire to avoid living in a minority community)

There appears to be a growing popularity of various interventions that seek to impact not primarily through conscious thought (as in traditional learning or psycho-analysis) but through shaping unconscious patterns or capacities; for example the rise and rise of various forms of cognitive and behavioural therapy and of various ‘brain gym’ products.

The questions - keeping me awake at night as the date of my speech nears – are whether these different spheres of investigation can be usefully related to each other, whether together they amount to a single describable and significant change in human understanding, and if so what might be the implications?

Appropriately enough, given the topic. this is slightly doing my head in at present so any reflections or advice for further reading will be gratefully received.

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