Joined Up Thinking by Hannah Critchlow review – the power of collective cognition

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The Guardian

Intelligence – at least according to IQ test scores – is declining across the globe, which won’t surprise anyone who follows the news but doesn’t exactly bode well for the continuing survival on the species. What to do? One suggestion made by this book is that we all connect our brains to neural interfaces which will collect everyone’s thoughts in a massive “super-brain cloud”, the better to sweetly reason ourselves collectively out of disaster. What could possibly go wrong?

This isn’t yet feasible anyway, but it is an example of the neuroscientist author’s determined optimism. Her central argument is important and correct: that we have become too used to thinking of intelligence as the private skill of individuals, vying against one another in a neoliberal world of relentless competition. What is needed, especially in an age of irredentist warmongering and climate disaster, is a greater emphasis on our ability to reason together, our “collective intelligence”.

This has been possible, of course, since we gruntingly taught one another how to make flint tools around the cave fire. What does neuroscience add to our understanding of it? Well, the brainwaves of people cooperating on a task can synchronise, which is interesting. And feelings of empathy help groups solve puzzles – as do higher female-to-male sex ratios. As in all good pop-science books, Critchlow describes many such experiments with clarity and infectious surprise. One Chinese psychologist found that creative problem-solving can be helped by going for a walk – but only if you don’t decide your route in advance. (This dampens down the activity of the decision-making prefrontal cortex.) On the other hand, there is also some of this sort of thing: “Scientists recently scanned grandmothers’ brains while they looked at photos of their grandchildren and saw areas of the brain associated with emotional empathy light up.” Um, no shit.

The book takes a more original and weirder turn as Critchlow speculates about technological interventions that could spur a greater level of communal thinking. Some seem sensible enough: improve ventilation, because higher CO2 concentrations make us stupider; and cultivate a different use of media, because exposure to bad news makes us stupider too. But a lot of other suggestions seem rather dystopian. Critchlow speculates that we might be evolving culturally to become “a socially integrated mega-group, much like beehives and ant colonies”. This “might feel alien”, she allows, “but it could usher in a utopian era of human cooperation.” It might also feel alien because it’s how the Borg work in Star Trek, and they are not exactly utopian: they forcibly colonise and absorb every other life form they meet.

She even implies that people who are not using their reasoning powers in order to further the good of the collective are, in this brave new world, to be chastised or even medically corrected, with neural implants or pharmaceuticals stimulating empathy circuits in the brains of psychopaths or narcissists. But the attempt to enforce collective thinking is a notable characteristic of totalitarian societies (the Borg is not a democracy). Critchlow does allow that collective reasoning is often dismayingly derailed by bias, emotional contagion, groupthink and other regrettable bugs in the human code, but doesn’t quite explain how such effects would be avoided rather than amplified in the glorious brain-cloud future.

“The world could be altered by the power of our minds to tackle everything,” Critchlow enthuses at the end, though it remains unclear how groovy sci-fi brain interfaces might improve upon the joined-up thinking already enabled for millennia by the technology of writing, which has allowed humans to reason together across space and time and construct the edifice of modern science itself. Has it in the meantime also given rise to global consensus on questions of ethics and values? Obviously not.

Old-fashioned group thinking, on the other hand, has definitely also given us racism, the Bolsheviks and conspiracy theorists who think that Covid vaccines contained nanorobots to control our minds. The difference is that Critchlow thinks inserting nanorobots (or “neural dust”) to control our minds might actually be a good idea. I suppose it could be worth a try so long as nothing else is working.

August 17, 2022 at 01:41PM Steven Poole

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