Jonah Lehrer and the social brain - RSA

Jonah Lehrer and the social brain


  • Social brain

I am even more excited than usual about our forthcoming lecture programme. In two weeks we award the RSA Benjamin Franklin Medal to Elizabeth Gould, the discoverer of neurogenesis, the process by which the brain generates new neurons.

Professor Gould is one of the world’s leading neuroscientists but tonight we have a world leading populariser of research on the brain and behaviour: Jonah Lehrer. As well as his two fantastic books, ‘Proust was a neuroscientist’ and ‘The decisive moment’ (the latter of which he is in town to publicise) Lehrer has his own website and blog, The Frontal Cortex, and is editor at large of SEED magazine.

As I’ve said in past blogs, I am working away with my colleague Matt Grist on the RSA Social Brain project. We are still at the stage of identifying the conceptual framework for the project. The aim now is to distil what we see as being the key insights from recent neuro-scientific and behavioural research as we try to develop an integrated model to challenge a cluster of myths about human agency derived from the overlapping perspectives of Cartesian philosophy, neo-classical economics and common sense.

This was in part the focus of my annual lecture in 2008 but we need to move beyond myth-busting, and citing of individual bits of research, into the development of a model which could be of practical use to decision makers, organisational leaders or anyone else interested in influencing behaviour and developing human capability.          

For myself I already have a sense of some of the key broad insights that we need to be using as the foundations for our new model:

-          Human decision making takes place on many levels. Although the conscious level is much less important than common sense tells us, one of the things that makes human beings different is that we can, within limits, determine which bits of our mental apparatus does which job. For example, learning a skill is about making something we start off trying to do through conscious effort - and as a consequence do badly -  into something that becomes automatic and effortless (like learning a language or musical instrument) by hard wiring our learning

-          Our personalities are much less fixed than we tend to think they are, but our sources of well-being are much more constant. In a recent blog Lehrer quotes philosopher Alva Noë"Consciousness is not something the brain achieves on its own," Noë writes. "Consciousness requires the joint operation of the brain, body and world. ... It is an achievement of the whole animal in its environmental context.".

-          More controversially, human decision making strategies in organisations (defined simply as a group of people trying to achieve something together) derive neither from a single way of viewing the world (as is asserted in neo-classical economics) nor by an infinite number of possibilities but by way of a limited array of (antagonistic but mutually reinforcing) paradigms.

By the end of the month I hope we will have developed and refined a list of about ten of these broad foundations and then started to look at how they link together, or possibly, are in tension.

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