Divided Brain, Divided World

February 12, 2013 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

It is always a great feeling when a piece of work that has been long in the making finally goes public. This particular report was a real labour of love. It emerged from your scribe being deeply impressed by a set of ideas about how the brain relates to the world(and vice versa) and wanting to do whatever I could to help others to share in that understanding.

Divided Brain, Divided World: Why the best part of us struggles to be heard explores the practical significance of the fact that the two hemispheres of our brains have radically different ‘world views’. It argues that our failure to learn lessons from the financial crash, our continuing neglect of climate change, and the increase in mental health conditions may stem from a literal loss of perspective that we urgently need to regain. The evidence-based case is that the abstract, articulate, instrumental world view of the left hemisphere is gradually usurping the more contextual, holistic but relatively tentative world view of the right hemisphere.

The report features a dialogue between myself, Director of RSA’s Social Brain Centre, and Psychiatrist and author Iain McGilchrist, about the practical and policy relevance of his critically acclaimed work: The Master and his Emissary. This discussion informed a workshop with policy-makers, journalists and academics and led to a range of written reflections on the strength and significance of the ideas, including critique and clarification of the argument, and illustrations of its relevance in particular domains, including economics, behavioural economics, climate change, NGO campaigning, patent law, ethics, and art.

For the purposes of promoting the report, I have frequently been asked to encapsulate the argument in as few words as possible, but this is not at all easy and feels like crafting the last of many Russian dolls. Iain’s argument is most fully expressed in a huge book that is about 350,000 words long, our report (including appendices) is about 45,000 words, a previous blog post gave an overview of the argument in 1400 words, and the RSAnimate (over a million hits) lasts about 12 minutes. So you can whittle it down, and the RSA has done what it can, but a simple elevator pitch is dangerous because there is so much nonsense out there about left and right brain thinking that anything too brief runs the risk of being misinformation.

The Process

Thankfully, in the report we have much broader capacity to develop the ideas, and in the afterword I reflected as follows:

The book is magisterial, and the argument utterly fundamental, so anybody who spends their time trying to effect social change should at least be aware of it, and have some sense of what they feel or think about it.

“During the course of reading Iain’s work, the process of preparing and conducting the dialogue, organising the workshop, and compiling and writing this document, I have often felt somewhat overwhelmed by the effort, but never underwhelmed by the goal. The theory is big, difficult and audacious and most people don’t quite know what to do with it. So, there have been times where it has felt like the drive to extract importance out of the interest has been in vain, but when I reflect on the initial motivation, and the potential prize, it feels more like we just have to try differently, or better.”

You see, the book is magisterial, and the argument utterly fundamental, so anybody who spends their time trying to effect social change should at least be aware of it, and have some sense of what they feel or think about it. You can think of it as a grand theory for our times. The argument is pitched at too general a level to ever reflect a single direct cause of a single phenomenon, but once the narrative as a whole seeps into you, it feels like it is relevant to everything around us, and you want everybody else to be able to see the world through that lens.

One of the respondents, Independent Researcher Simon Christmas FRSA captured the value of this kind of contribution well (p67):

“It has given me a better way of grasping many things I had already thought or felt. By doing so, it has made those thoughts and feelings clearer and more meaningful. Iain himself notes that there is little in the book that one might not arrive at by some other route. I think that is key to its impact: it speaks to an audience who have already fumbled
their way to an intellectual discontent for which Iain’s argument provides a shape, a story, a narrative.”

Practical Implications:

We tried our best to make sense of the ‘so what?’ question and made some headway that I hope others might build on. In the report, John Wakefield’s (former political journalist) extended feedback piece(p71) gives a particularly careful account of the extent to which we should expect practical implications from such a nuanced and high-level thesis, but for the press release we were naturally a little more direct:

“This issue has deep significance for anybody working to affect social change. The evidence-based case is that the abstract, instrumental, articulate and assured world view of the left hemisphere is gradually usurping the more contextual, humane, systemic, holistic but relatively tentative and inarticulate world view of the right hemisphere. This cultural trend can be illustrated in a range of current policy issues, for instance:

  • An obsession with exam results in school education
  • The creation of absurd forms of bibliometry and citation counting in higher education research assessment exercises.
  • Funding cuts for arts and humanities courses that struggle to justify themselves in instrumental terms.
  • Pervasive ignoring or denial of the scale of our climate change problem.
  • Political failure to think through the implications of the fact that beyond a minimal threshold higher income does not equate with higher wellbeing.
  • Political failure to question the imperative for economic growth.

We have been sold a sadly limiting version of who we as human beings are, and how we relate to the world. Inside each one of us there is an intelligence, in fact a superior intelligence, that sees things differently from the way we have been sold – if we would only listen to it. Let’s hope that we can. Iain McGilchrist

Hopeful Pessimism:

Some might think the report has a negative quality, in that it’s basically a critique of the modern world and the direction we are heading, but at its heart it is hopeful, constructive and even optimistic: Iain closes the dialogue as follows:

“I call myself a hopeful pessimist. In respect of where we are currently headed, yes, I am a pessimist. In respect of our potential to adapt and change quickly, I am hopeful. I sense that people are sick of the current worldview in the West… In response to my book, people of all walks of life all over the world have written to me. They are looking for a change in direction, and I think all I have done is to give them courage to believe in what they already really know at some level – something which has not been articulated in quite the same terms before. In many ways my message is a very positive one. We have been sold a sadly limiting version of who we as human beings are, and how we relate to the world. Inside each one of us there is an intelligence, in fact a superior intelligence, that sees things differently from the way we have been sold – if we would only listen to it. Let’s hope that we can.”

###

A Note on Reading the Report: 

I really hope as many people as possible can read the full report. However, if you just press ‘print’, you’ll get about 48 pages double-sided, so it is worth thinking of what you most want to read by going to the contents page in the PDF first. The dialogue with me and Iain is split into three parts: 1) The argument(p8) 2) Challenges to the argument(p23) 3)Practical Implications(p31). The Reflections section (p51) includes 14 feedback pieces including Ray Tallis, Mark Vernon, Tom Crompton, Rita Carter, Theresa Marteau and others. The Appendices (p80) feature details of a three-hour workshop discussion where Guy Claxton, Mark Williamson, Matthew Taylor and many others spoke, and has been included to capture some of the best ideas generated collectively, but will probably only be of interest to those who are truly committed!

The Hidden Curriculum of the Big Society

January 5, 2012 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Social Brain 

I wish I had a trumpet. We just released a report Beyond the Big Society: Psychological Foundations of Active CitizenshipAllegra Stratton covered it in the Guardian, it was discussed on the Today programme, and hopefully there is plenty more coverage to come.

Like everybody else, we are not too sure where the inner circle of Downing Street stands on the Big Society. My impression is that David Cameron believes in the idea deeply and genuinely, but has been advised, rightly, that the term has become somewhat toxic, and they are regrouping to find a way to bring the idea back to life.

I have already used a Lord of the Rings reference on the Big Society, describing the emphasis on community at a time of austerity as an attempt to build the Shire in Mordor. At the moment it feels more like Downing Street are carefully planning a resurrection that has to be the same thing, but different. In this case the next iteration of the Big Society looks more like Gandalf the Grey reeling from his battle with the Balorog of Morgoth, when he “strayed out of thought and time”, “but it was not the end…” and Gandalf the White was “sent back, until my task is done”.

My impression is that David Cameron believes in the idea deeply and genuinely, but has been advised, rightly, that the term has become somewhat toxic, and they are regrouping to find a way to bring the idea back to life.

The uncertainty over the status of the Big Society is reflected in the title of the report. Throughout several months of drafting, it was called ‘The Hidden Curriculum of the Big Society’ but at the last minute we feared this may sound out-dated, and given the content of the report applies to participation more broadly, and ‘curriculum’ tends to activate conventional educational frames, we decided to hedge our bets, in case the Big Society really has died as a political idea.

Nonetheless, the report is about the Hidden Curriculum of the Big Society in the following sense(from the report):

Curriculum literally means to ‘run the course’, as in curriculum vitae, the course of my life. The ‘curriculum’ of the Big Society is viewed here as a long term process of cultural change, consisting of the myriad activities and behaviours that people are explicitly being asked to participate in and subscribe to. The hidden curriculum of this process of cultural change comprises the attitudes, values and competencies that are required for this process. The main purpose of this report is to highlight the nature of this hidden curriculum, and indicate how it might inform policy and practice, particularly in relation to releasing hidden social wealth and increasing social productivity.

The ‘curriculum’ of the Big Society is viewed here as a long term process of cultural change, consisting of the myriad activities and behaviours that people are explicitly being asked to participate in and subscribe to. The hidden curriculum of this process of cultural change comprises the attitudes, values and competencies that are required for this process.

As indicated in our web blurb, we believe the idea of the Big Society is at its weakest when it is presented as a partisan technical solution to acute socio-economic problems, and at its strongest when viewed as a non-partisan long term challenge to enrich our social and human capital. At the core of this challenge are the demands we place on people when we ask them to be, for instance, responsible, autonomous, or to show greater solidarity with their fellow citizens. Such demands are grounded in implicit assumptions about human nature and adult competencies that need to be made more explicit if the Big Society is going to survive as a viable idea.

We introduce a perspective on public participation that is rarely considered by policymakers, namely mental complexity in the adult population – our varied capacity to understand competing motivations and values in ourselves and others, to ‘get things in perspective’, and to act appropriately in uncertain or ambiguous situations. Rather than theories of ‘personality’ and ‘interpersonal skills’ that only pay lip service to the complexity of human capital, we believe this perspective helps us to deepen the discussion on public participation, with greater explanatory power and clearer practical implications.

This argument is informed by the work of Harvard Theoretical Psychologist and Educator Robert Kegan, whom I was lucky enough to be taught by a decade ago. I also make use of his ideas in our Transforming Behaviour Change report but in the more recent work I try to show the central relevance of his work to one of the biggest policy issues of our time.

The core argument is that what makes society ‘big’ in the sense of significant are big citizens, and what makes a citizen ‘big’ are their competencies. When you look closely at the things people are asked to do and master (participate, volunteer, take responsibility, cooperate etc) in the name of the Big Society, these tasks clearly entail certain competencies.

Why I think our report has value is that we look at these competencies in detail, and find, inspired by Kegan, that they implicitly ask for a certain level of mental complexity in the adult population. That is fine, good even. Our argument is that if the Big Society is ever going to be taken seriously this implicit challenge has to be recognised, and we need to be more explicit about what this means in terms of designing policies and practices that support people in meeting that challenge.

Confused but intrigued? Read the report.

I wrestled with the document for months, as Gandalf wrestled with the Balrog, so I am glad it is out, and want to thank those who helped, especially the background research and contributions of co-authors Matthew Mezey Kalman and Benedict Dellot.

The Common Cause Report: A line in the sand?

November 29, 2011 by · 4 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

Matthew Taylor  argued yesterday for the need to keep communications on climate change simple, and implied that the more radical call for an overhaul in our value system was too utopian to work. He may be right, but an Oliver Wendell Holmes quotation sprung to mind:

“I would not give a fig for the simplicity on this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side.”

A truly ‘simple’ approach to climate change would have to go beyond (transcend and include) the complexity of the issue, rather than avoiding it. It is not just about insurance, or a sophisticated form of the precautionary principle. As Matthew pointed out in his lecture on 21st Century Enlightenment, the world system continues to be driven by three main logics.

“The success of the Western post-Enlightenment project has resulted in a society like ours being dominated by three logics: of scientific and technological progress, of markets, and of bureaucracy. The limitation of the logic of science and of markets lies in an indifference to a substantive concern for the general good. If something can be discovered and developed it
should be discovered and developed. If something sells then it should be sold. The problem with the logic of bureaucracy, as Max Weber spotted over a hundred years ago, is its tendency to privilege procedural rationality (the rationality of rules) over substantive rationality (the rationality of ends).”

We need an approach that recognises the power of these logics but is not complicit in their perpetuation. If simplicity is the answer, it lies on the other side of this complexity. (Or, at the risk of overquoting “Everything should be as simple as possible, but no simpler.”- Einstein)

So here is why I think we need to take a viewpoint on the common cause report. Their argument- that we need to work directly with our cultural values- represents a radical change of strategy, and what the profound Psychologist Paul Watzlawick might call ‘second order change’- not merely a strategy for change(first order change) of which their are thousands, but a meta-strategy for changing the way things change.

Their argument- that we need to work directly with our cultural values- represents a radical change of strategy, and what the profound Psychologist Paul Watzlawick might call ‘second order change’- not merely a strategy for change(first order change) of which their are thousands, but a meta-strategy for changing the way things change.

I hope to come back to the Common Cause Report later(and a recent selection of their updated briefings will be worth writing about), but for those who are unfamiliar, the following captures the gist of the argument(forgive the long quote):

“It is increasingly evident that resistance to action on these challenges (humanitarian and environmnetal crises) will only be overcome through engagement with the cultural values that underpin this resistance. It also seems clear that, in trying to meet these challenges, civil society organisations must champion some long-held (but insufficiently esteemed) values, while seeking to diminish the primacy of many values which are now prominent – at least in Western industrialised society. The values that must be strengthened – values that are commonly held and which can be brought to the fore – include: empathy towards those who are facing the effects of humanitarian and environmental crises, concern for future generations, and recognition that human prosperity resides in relationships – both with one another and with the natural world. Undoubtedly these are values that have been weakened – and often even derided – in modern culture….they are values that must be championed if we are to uncover the collective will to deal with today’s profound global challenges.”

That bald overview does not do justice to the structure of the argument, or its considerable evidence base. The heart of the challenge is moving from values are that essentially selfish to values that lead us to identify with ‘bigger than self’ problems.

It it difficult to be take a stand on either side of this argument. At first blush, you either position yourself as an ally of the values that are (arguably) destroying our habitat, or you look naive in arguiing for a complete otherthrow of everything that is assumed to be acceptable and normal. A third perspective is to deny the importance of values in the context of global challenges. So which is it? How do you begin to position yourself on this issue?

I look forward to writing again about this later, especially if I get some good feedback.

 

Beware the Romantic Technocrat…

November 21, 2011 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Social Brain 

When you think ‘technocrat’, words like boring, instrumental, management, spreadsheets and briefcase are not far behind. And then there are those red roses, candlelit dinners, pink champagne, soft lighting, gentle music…Or maybe you have never met that kind of technocrat?

Paul Krugman at the New York Times made a striking claim yesterday- that the so called ‘technocrats’ who are now  running the besieged economies of Italy and Greece are actually ‘cruel euro romantics’. Of course, being a bit of a technocrat himself, he uses ‘romantic’ in a rather technical sense:

“They are, to be sure, a peculiarly boring breed of romantic, speaking in turgid prose rather than poetry. And the things they demand on behalf of their romantic visions are often cruel, involving huge sacrifices from ordinary workers and families. But the fact remains that those visions are driven by dreams about the way things should be rather than by a cool assessment of the way things really are.”

His post reminded me of what Jonathan Ree in a different context referred to as ‘para-science’ i.e. the ‘campfire’ stories that scientists tell themselves to legitimise their endeavours.

I think there is a fair amount of para-economics around at the moment- visions of how things have to be to keep the financial system afloat, whether they are feasible or not.

Are we Neuromaniacs?

June 23, 2011 by · 4 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

I am bored by reading people who are allies, people of roughly the same views.  What is interesting is to read the enemy; because the enemy penetrates the defences. – Isaiah Berlin

I don’t often feel nervous before an RSA event, especially one I am not taking part in, but the Neuromania debate between Ray Tallis and Matthew Taylor on July 5th is likely to pose important questions for the legitimacy of the Social Brain Project.

Tallis is the figurative ‘enemy’ that Berlin alludes to above. He is a trained doctor and neuroscientist, but also a respected philosopher and cultural critic. The message of his recently released book: Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity is that we have drastically overestimated the ability of science, particularly neuroscience and evolutionary psychology, to provide guidance on who we are, and how we should live. Tallis also directly attacks our Chief Executive Matthew Taylor, my predecessor Matt Grist, and the entire raison d’etre of the Social Brain Project(at least as he understands it) which I am currently responsible for.

Tallis’s book is nonetheless an extremely important contribution to the public understanding of science. I am definitely with him on the inadequacy of the cruder materialistic theories of consciousness, which I think is his real target and concern. I agree that we are not merely our brains, that humans do differ significantly from other animals, and that consciousness is (probably) more than an artefact of evolutionary biology. I also think he is right that neuroscience cannot and should not serve in a foundational or axoimatic role for social, ethical and political questions.

Like Tallis, I am deeply troubled by the legerdemain that leads froma mis-reading of an FMRI scan, to conceptual confusion on the relationship between mind and brain, to questionable insights into the causes of human behaviour, to a misdiagnosis of social challenges, to value-laden policy positions that existed independently of the brain science, but which find fresh justification through the preceding pseudoscientific process.

What the RSA is interested in is learning more about ourselves and our capacties as agents of social change- in the language of 21st century enlightenment: our self aware autonomy.

But the RSA Social Brain project wants no part of that. I really don’t think we are Tallis’s target at all. His bugbear is with the idea of science as authority, science as reductionism, and science as arbiter on issues beyond its provenance(talking of which, the book is rather funny- in one of his more withering attacks, Tallis refers to ‘colonic material of a taurine provenance’).

Tallis makes reference to Matthew Taylor wanting policy to be informed by findings from the “neuro-lab”, but this feels tendentious. What the RSA is interested in is learning more about ourselves and our capacties as agents of social change- in the language of 21st century enlightenment: our self aware autonomy.

Such awareness is not about deferring to men in white coats but about continually reflecting on the conditions of our action, including but by no means limited to our biological conditions.  To say that we need to be more aware of our biology is enlightened, to say that it fully determines who we are, or that we should stop being interested in everything else, is not.

In other words, Tallis is overreacting. This feeling was confirmed by his sideswipe at Iain McGilchrist (fellow neuroscientist/philosopher/culture critic) and his book, The Master and His Emissary, which he believes is the epitome of neuromania, becuase I suspect McGilchrist is very much on Tallis’s side with regard to the widespread mis-use of neuroscience, and its tendency to (literally) misrepresent human beings.

Tallis seems to be conflating our interest in the educative value of neuroscience with an uncritical reverence for its supposed imperial warrant. The former is healthy, and should not be lost due to fear of the latter. Neuroscience is a new card in the explanatory deck for human behaviour, and a powerful one, but it is not a trump card, and should not be played as such.

It is right to recognise that natural sciences enjoy greater epistemic warrant than social sciences and humanities, and that this represents an intellectual and cultural hazard, but the warrant can be curtailed with the right critical engagement. The prefix ‘neuro’, properly understood, need not be a signal of reductionism, but should instead be about recognising the periodic relevance and occasional salience of the distinct features of our extended and relational nervous systems.

There is a course between neuromania and neurophobia, and we are trying to chart it. The challenge is not to ignore or undervalue neuroscience, but to critically engage with it. The task for the RSA, I think, is to move away from the idea of ‘science as authority’- justifying moral/political positions, to ‘science as provocation’- stimulating reflexive behaviour change. That is what we are now working on building into a unique offer, as will become clear from publications over the next few weeks.