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It’s not just your legs that benefit from a good work-out: they say that learning new things is the key to keeping that most treasured possession: your mind. How often do you give yours a good work out? How often do you learn new things, challenge your known things, challenge your assumptions and your words? My word is ‘networks’, my assumptions leftish by way of human rights, and I know that I do not challenge these enough.

One of the wonderful things about working at the RSA is that you are always learning. Indeed there are so many ideas and experts and projects and concepts floating around that sometimes you feel a need to stop learning; to draw a protective line around that which you do know – mother hen-like – and say “stop, these are my known things, stop muddling them up!”

As it never pays to count one’s chicks (however well-known they may be) it was interesting to read Paul Ormerod’s new book – Positive Linkingand chair his RSA talk about it.  We have very different takes on what exactly a network is, and it was fascinating to see how he got to his. As someone who went from being a social historian, to Latin Americanist, to human right-ist to sociology-tinged social network scientist of the Portes-ian school, my understanding of networks is as follows:

Networks are not a thing; they are a way of understanding and representing the world. A social networks perspective seeks to understand the way in which discrete units – nodes – are connected and affected by the relationships between them."

But whilst we may pretend otherwise, social network analysts do not have the monopoly on the network, be it social or otherwise. Facebook and Co stole it to mean ‘online platform where we steal all your data and you get the illusion of having friends’; Economists have long meant ‘Network Effects’ to be ‘that value created by economies of scale on the demand side': my mobile phone becomes valuable when everyone else has one; often Network just means ‘group of people somewhat interacting with each other’.

What is clear is that whatever you understand a network to be, human beings tend towards connecting, interacting and sharing, and this tendency shapes the human experience to a large extent. Human beings, connected, are often good: we are forever creating on the shoulders of giants, and creativity, sharing, generosity and compassion make our human experience the wonderful journey it can sometimes be.  Human beings, connected, are also often bad: the more we hear something, the more we believe it to be true; sometimes leading fellow human down twisty filter bubbles in which we – us – are all that is good in the world, and they – them – are all that is bad.

So to help keep my mind active, and to use the good things about human beings connecting tendencies to challenge the bad bits – excessive reliance on my filter-bubble and my known things – I’m helping out with a (non-RSA) project that is trying to break down filter bubbles and share knowledge outside, around and between our little Silos: The Thought Menu.  We'll be covering everything from Revisioning Europe, to totally sustainable mobile phones, to what exactly the New Aesthetic is.

It kicks off this Friday with a jam-packed evening of a communal soup dinner and talks about everything from teenage trust online, meditation in prisons, how creativity can help with climate change, and how to get great projects done for little or no money. Given the tile of this post, you won’t be surprised to hear that I’m most looking forward to Dr Tamara Russel and her talk on ‘What happens when I train my brain: The neuroscience of meditation training’.

Please do feel free to come along, and please tell us all: how are you training your mind?


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