Our brains hurts (well, a little bit anyway)


  • Social brain

I spent some of the Easter weekend reading a draft of a new paper from our social brain project, and very interesting it was too.

In important and systematic ways our modes of thinking don't function well in the world in which we live : this idea has become ubiquitous and has a variety of expressions.

Derived from behavioural economics, nudge theory is premised on the idea that people sometimes find it hard to do the thing they want to do. Nudge thinkers like Thaler and Sunstein use the phrase ‘libertarian paternalism’ to describe the way their interventions are supposed to help us overcome the failings of our cognitive machinery (for example, our short-termism) better to enable us to do the things we say we want to do (for example, saving for retirement or being potential organ donors).

Recent figures show a rise in the use of anti-depressants and particular SSRIs (although we should be careful about exaggerating the trend) . It is unlikely that this growth has been driven simply by a random increase in individual pathology. The rise seems to imply that more people are having difficulty coping with aspects of modern life and therefore need the chemical balance of their brains adjusted.

A few weeks ago – amidst a great deal of publicity and public interest – Action for Happiness launched. Although its leading figures stress the importance of social environment in shaping levels of well-being, it is also explicit in the institute's mandate that it seeks to help people create happier lives. Given that most of us presumably want to be happy, this too suggests that there is a problem not just in what, but in how, we are thinking. Action for Happiness endorses greater access to mental health therapies and also the use by perfectly healthy people of mindfulness (a non spirtual form of meditation which helps train your brain to operate differently).

Some people – like the Institute of Ideas for example – are deeply suspicious of all this. It is alleged that we are allowing the creation of a therapeutic state in which politicians and self-interested professionals seek to reduce legitimate social grievances to individual pathologies. But this is to mistake a symptom (official interest and intervention) for a cause (real change in people and society).

In my second annual lecture I suggested society may be entering ‘a period of neurological reflexivity’. By this I meant that a growing awareness of how our brains function, derived in part from neuroscience but also from a range of other disciplines including social psychology, behavioural economics, evolutionary psychology, would become increasingly influential in culture and policy, indeed in our whole idea of selfhood.

In order of priority I would list the causes of this shift as: new scientific insights into human nature and decision making; evidence that very many people (indeed whole societies) are not flourishing despite economic and technological progress; a sense that we may not be well prepared for some of the biggest challenges the 21st century is throwing at us; rising expectations with people wanting to get more out of their long lives in terms of functioning and fulfilment.

Rather than arguing that insights into human nature should be applied in particular ways or for particular purposes (which may be a little premature or even dangerous), the RSA’s interest lies in exploring how new ways of thinking and talking about human brains in modern society impact on people, groups and public discourse.

As we explained in an earlier paper, we are less aiming to ‘nudge’ people to do good, than give them the information which might enable them to better ‘steer’a course through a modern world using a prehistoric brain. Jonathan Rowson’s paper (the one I have just read in draft) suggests a focus on three areas in which insights in the social brain may lead to shifts in chosen behaviour; how we make good decisions despite our cognitive frailties, how we create the circumstances which shape our habits so it is easier to achieve our goals, and how we direct our attention in a world of over-stimulation and information saturation.

There are real challenges with this work. It is multi-disciplinary and complex and it is easy to get lost in a jungle of information. As an organisation committed to concrete innovation, discussing the foundations of consciousness can seem very abstract. But I am convinced that the broad topic of brain and society is going to become even more high profile and influential in the years to come and the RSA has an important role to play in ensuring discussion of key issues is accessible, rigorous and - where it is appropriate - with scope for practical application.

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