Cognitive science in the news

There has been a lot of coverage of new thinking in the cognitive and behavioural sciences in the press this week.


Two pieces in the Guardian on Tuesday: in G2 there was a profile of Jill Bolte Taylor, the remarkable American neuro-anatomist who suffered a massive stroke which she analyses with unnerving calm in one of the most downloaded TED lectures of all time. Her most recent book argues that understanding the biochemical processes that underpin our emotional states will allow us to control them better.


Meanwhile, in the main paper there was a fascinating report on how Israeli neurologist Alon Friedman is planning a study on the neurological impact of stress on children in Gaza and the long term damage that this can cause to their brain function.


What lies behind the very different work of Friedman and Bolte Taylor is the belief that understanding neurological mechanisms can help us to plan more effective interventions.


There are two common objections to this which we have often come across whilst planning the RSA changing minds project.


The first is that it is too reductionist or mechanistic an account of human behaviour. We cannot explain everything (or the most important things) about our thinking simply by reference to neurological processes and without acknowledging environmental factors or conscious decision making.


The second is that understanding neurological mechanism does not in reality add very much to our responses to these issues. We do not need to understand brain plasticity to know that living in a war zone will be psychologically damaging to children or to know that we can manage or overcome our emotional states. What value is added by explaining these things in terms of neurological processes?


I think both these objections can be resisted. To claim that neurological processes are an influence on our behaviour and capacities is not to deny that other factors influence them. Indeed both these stories could be seen to be about the interaction between neurological processes of which we are unconscious and external factors or conscious thinking. The real challenge is to understand how all these elements interact to shape the way we think.


The question about added value is harder to answer – but it seems clear that understanding how mechanisms work can be helpful at least some of the time. To take a couple of analogous examples, although we have always had a broad understanding of how comparatively healthy particular environments were, it was only in the nineteenth century as we began to understand in reasonably precise terms how and why contaminated water, insanitary conditions, air pollution etc impacted on physical health that we were able to achieve real progress on public health.


Similarly, we have always known how to improve the body’s performance: that by running a lot, for example, you will become better at running, but as we have come to understand more about the physiological processes involved we have been able to devise more sophisticated training regimes that increase performance to previously unimaginable levels.


So understanding how things work can certainly help us to make them work better in some cases – whether this is true of our neurological processes may be a moot point but it can only be resolved if we do the work to find out what those mechanisms are and how they relate to the way we think.


Friedman and Bolte Taylor are both talking abut the neurological hardwiring that impacts on our behaviours. This is certainly a crucial part of understanding why human beings behave as they do but there are other disciplines that offer equally valuable insights.


On Wednesday Danny Finkelstein’s column in the times was dedicated to the political influence of evolutionary psychology, behavioural economics and social psychology. Behavioural economics has been everywhere this week with piece on nudging by George Osborne in the Guardian causing a big stir (including this response on the Telegraph blog from our own Matthew Taylor). Richard Thaler spoke here at the RSA on Thursday and the room was heaving at the seams so there’s clearly a popular appetite to learn more about this thinking. But as Finkelstein points out its political application is patchy. So while we may talk about behavioural nudging in relation to savings policy, it has not figured in the debate about knife crime (indeed as Finkelstein points out the current hysteria around the subject ignores all the lessons from social psychology about how normalising behaviour tends to encourage it).


It’s certainly true that we need to look across the policy landscape at how insights from all these different disciplines map onto real world problems.

Finkelstein was kind enough to describe the RSA as one of the leading think tanks in this area and it’s definitely one of the things that we want to be doing with our new project. But there’s another way in which it’s also important to bring things together. The disciplines Finkelstein refers to (not to mention all those he doesn’t) are all very different, they start from different places and proceed through different methodologies. Evolutionary psychologists and neuroscientists and behavioural economists may have very different accounts of why people behave and think as they do in particular instances, let alone what it means in policy terms.


Obviously there’s a huge amount of work going on in all these disciplines. The RSA wouldn’t claim expertise in any of them – but we can provide a space in which experts from different fields can come together with policy-makers, practitioners and members of the public to share insights ask questions of each other and test ideas for how to use these sciences of thought and behaviour to address some of the key challenges of our time.



One response to “Cognitive science in the news

  1. Jonathan this is a well balanced piece which avoids the temptation of claiming too much too soon for the power of neuroscience to guide social, personal or educational practice. But you are absolutely right that continuing brain research is fully justified. It is true that we cannot yet make any useful links between what parts of the brain do what and any action we might take, but that is a real possibility for the future. This future will only be realised (or possibly proven to be a chimera) after a great deal more exploration with fMRI, PET, EEG, and other scanning techniques.

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