An occasionally useful halfwit...


  • Social brain

Well folks, this is it. My 500th blog post. Don’t worry I’m not going to go back over the previous 499, listing my greatest hits, my unread classics and my favourite comments.

Instead I want to explore some questions about the study of human behaviour. These have come up in the context both of the RSA’s projects  (such as the Social Brain) and my own writing and broadcasting as the Society’s Chief Executive. For example, I am currently engaged in a project for Radio Four under the working title ‘God on My Mind’. I can predict some of the criticisms that will be made when the programmes are broadcast. Indeed Ray Tallis, who recently criticised my Prospect piece, has shown remarkable prescience in already attacking this project despite, as far as I know, not even knowing of its existence.    

The issues were rehearsed at a recent lunch organised by the magazine Prospect at which I was the guest speaker. From the outset I adopted my well practiced self-deprecatory pose, recognising the infelicities in my own recent Prospect piece on politics and the brain, and the dangers of trying to ‘explain’ human behaviour through brain scans or the theories of evolutionary psychology.

But despite starting with this tactical retreat, as the lunch went on I found myself wanting to defend the new science of behaviour from two of the charges directed at it by my learned and sceptical lunch companions.

The basis of the first attack was that even to talk about behaviour showing up in brain activity, particularly through the use of colourful fMRI imaging, would inevitably lead to a reductionist account of human behaviour. The risk of course is real and has been underlined both in Tallis’ articles and in critiques of ‘the voodoo correlations’ of social neuroscience.

The identification of brain regions with certain characteristics or behaviours may be simplistic and the idea that just to see where something happens in the brain is somehow to ‘explain’ it is ridiculous. Yet the scope for advancing our understanding comes from the capacity to cross reference observed behaviour with neural activity.

Here’s an example: 

Yesterday Dan Pink spoke at the RSA about his new book on human motivation, ‘Drive’. Part of his critique of carrot and stick incentives as the primary means to improve performance rests on the famous candle experiment. In this, subjects are shown a table adjacent to a wall. On the table there is a candle, a book of matches and a box of drawing pins. The task is to attach the candle to the wall, light it but not allow any wax to drip on to the table below.

The solution to the puzzle is to remove the drawing pins from the box, pin it to the wall, stand up the candle in the box, and light it. To get to the solution requires the lateral leap of seeing that the drawing pin box is not incidental (merely holding the pins) but is an object in play. In repeated experiments it has been found that if subjects in one group are told they will win a cash prize if they solve the problem and subjects in another group are simply asked to solve it without any incentive, it is the members of the latter group who, on average, get to the solution quicker.

The experiment is suggestive of a specific neurological process. Perhaps the cash incentive increases the activity in parts of the brain associated with deliberate problem solving or anxiety and this somehow blocks or drowns out the activity in another part of the brain associated with intuitive leaps or pattern recognition. This is something that could presumably be tested (maybe it has already been) by asking people to solve the problem in a scanner. Whether or not such a pattern is observed does not affect the significance of the original experiment, and patterns of neuronal activity are not a useful finding in themselves, but the two together can give us interesting insights into the ways cognitive tasks interact. Such findings, could for example, complement other research which appear to show our will power is reduced after we have undertaken a taxing mental problem.

Back at the Prospect lunch the second critique I sought to rebuff was reminiscent of the 14th Century Pope's hostility to translating  the Bible in English: ordinary mortals aren't to be trusted with information they might misuse.  the line here is that human behaviour is so complex and reflexive that any model a layperson could understand would, by its nature, be misleading. So, when in the lunch I posited my metaphor of human behaviour as an elephant (our automatic brain) being ridden (by our conscious brain) though a cultivated jungle (society and culture) the reaction was the kind of dismissive shudder you might get if, while lunching at The Ivy, you asked for a bottle of Hirondelle (if you’re under 40 ask your parents).

The problem with this position – apart from its eye-watering elitism – is that the alternative to one model of human behaviour isn’t none but another. So, even if there are lots of over-statements and simplifications in new thinking about behaviour (for example, the ‘Nudge’ epidemic) the new debate is surely better than the unthinking reliance on the myth of homo economus that dominated policy throughout the nineties.

The RSA is interested in these issues because our overarching mission is to release human potential for the benefit of society. To understand how to do this we think we need a credible and comprehensible account of the key factors shaping human behaviour.

I didn’t convince anyone at my lunch and I dread to think what my learned interlocutors said about me when I left.  But, and this is in no way meant as a slight on my lunchtime companions, all of whom have made a considerable impact on the world, I’m going to comfort myself with this motto for my 500th blog:

‘better to be an occasionally useful half wit than a purely decorative intellectual’.

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