Ringo, Paul, my big toe and meta-cognition - RSA

Ringo, Paul, my big toe and meta-cognition


  • Social brain

Last weekend Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney were reunited in New York to launch an initiative from the Foundation of cult film director David Lynch.  The aim is to get a million American school children to take up transcendental meditation. Apart from seeing the two Beatles together, I found the event fascinating because I am myself half way through a mindfulness stress reduction course, based on meditation techniques.

I am not a brilliant student. Bring prone to anxiety, self obsession and hyper activity I have further to travel than most people to reach meditative calm. And working twelve hour days it isn’t easy to find the 20 or 30 minutes to practise.

Even so, I am an enthusiast. Apart from the feeling of well-being and refreshment after meditating (a bit like the serotonin rush after a run), I now have moments in my day to day routine when I feel a sudden openness to the world around me. I haven’t yet been able to use meditation techniques to calm my frequent surges of over-excitement or anxiety but I am hoping this will come with practice.

One of the occasions when I found meditation really helpful was a week or so ago. I had submitted to one of our leading ideas magazines a long article on the social and political implications of behavioural and neuro-science. Late in the evening I got an e-mail from the editorial team saying, basically, ‘nice idea, rubbish article, start again’. My immediate response was a three step waltz of self righteous fury, embarrassment and denial. But after twenty minutes of concentrating on my big toe (you are supposed to scan the whole body but I stuck with the toe as it was the furthest away from the madness threatening to engulf my mind) I was through the worst: the editors were right - I could and would do better next time.

The problem with my article was that its core thesis, if it can be called a thesis, was facile: ‘there has been lots of interesting research and it might have big consequences for all of us’. I failed to establish a core argument; what really are the big ideas from brain and behavioural science and why is it that these ideas could and should change the way we think about ourselves and our society.

So between the meditation, the small matter of running the RSA, and the uninvited black clouds of profound thoughts (why the hell didn’t Tony Mowbray stick to his guns and insist on keeping Kevin Phillips at West Brom, why do I keep finding so many hairs in the bath after my shower, what is it in my diet that makes me so windy in the mornings) I have been rehearsing a central thesis.

So far I have this. We tend to put the divide between the conscious and the unconscious mind in the wrong place. We massively exaggerate the role of conscious thought in our day to day actions and interactions. Nearly everything we do we do automatically as a consequence of the interplay of our genetically given and socially modified brain and the context in which we place ourselves. In this there is not much to distinguish human beings from other animals. Instead, the important line is between day to day behaviour and a unique human faculty - meta-cognition, thinking about thinking.

As brain and behavioural science advances, we are opening up major new meta-cognitive possibilities. We may have little conscious control over what we do most of the time but the new science is helping us to see how we can shape our day to day automatic responses by understanding our idiosyncrasies (see behavioural economics and social psychology), shaping our environments (to create the best conditions for well being and altruism) and rewiring our brains (for example using CBT and meditation).

Our brain is, as the determinists argue, a computer which responds automatically to stimuli depending on its pre-programming. But human begins have the unique ability to re-programme themselves, removing the bugs that were built in at birth or develop with day to day use, developing useful firewalls (between physical reactions and psychological over-reactions) and making the computer better at interacting with its environment.

Ringo and Paul see transcendental meditation as a proven and effective method of re-programming.  They are right.  But over the coming years we will learn much more about how to improve the functioning of the day-to-day brain that dictates our every action.

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