Losing our individual sense of self is something that reaches deeply into our (shared!) psyche. Indeed, I suspect anyone who has grown up in Anglo-Saxon culture will share this feeling that independent thought and our natural individuality are somehow bound up together. Without one, you can’t really have the other.
But just because we feel something should be so, doesn’t mean it actually is. Emile Durkheim – the father of modern social science – pointed out that many of our most deeply held feelings about how the world is are mere ‘ideology’ rather than fact: we see what we expect to see. The notion of thinking as an individual act can be seen as one of these ideological projections. Indeed, many cognitive and behavioral scientists are now coming to the conclusion that our species’ extraordinary evolutionary success is largely driven by our ability to think socially, to learn socially and to embed that thinking and learning in culture so that others we have never met can also take advantage of it. ‘We-think’ is much more important than ‘I-think’.
While our culture might celebrate the power of the individual mind to think its way through the challenges of life, a longer-term view reveals a very different story. Our brains do not seem to have evolved primarily for conceptual thinking or problem solving, but rather as a means to live in large and complex social groups.
Robin Dunbar of the University of Oxford has repeatedly demonstrated that all primate species (humans included) exhibit a direct correlation between the relative size of the neocortex and the size and complexity of the grooming group (the group in which relationships are sustained over a period of time). Others such as Nick Humphreys – who worked with primatologists Dian Fossey and Richard Leakey in Africa – have described in beautiful detail what has become known as the Social Brain Hypothesis: that is, the idea that human brains, like those of our closest peers, are organs evolved for social contexts rather than the cold independent calculation machines that economists and A.I. labs would have us believe.
The discovery of so-called ‘mirror neurons’ by Giacomo Rizzolatti and his team in Parma in the 1980s and 90s added much to this picture. Mirror neurons are brain cells that fire when an animal (a macaque in the original experiment) moves a particular part of its body and when it sees another do the same (hence ‘mirror’). Neuroscientists believe this enables individuals to intuit what those around them are likely to do and even what they feel. Indeed, many now suggest that this is the root of all kinds of social phenomena from empathy to morality. While monkeys have these kinds of cells in some abundance, humans have them in even greater variety and number than observed anywhere else. And this enables our brains to cope with larger social groups and more complex social interactions and relationships than our closest cousins.
‘We-think’ really is much more common than you’d first imagine: much of what we think about is actually other people. This is beautifully demonstrated by recent research which estimates that roughly 1/3 of human conversation content is about things (or the weather, etc.) and the remaining 2/3 is about people, of which half (so fully 1/3 of all conversations) is primarily about people who aren’t even present. As Nobel Laureate Thomas Schelling points out, most human life consists of individuals responding to a context that consists of other individuals’ responses to a context of other people’s responses, and so on…
But we think with people all the time too – ‘distributed memory’ being one of the most common examples. If you’ve been to a work reunion or a family gathering recently, I’m sure you’ll have seen demonstrated how common it is to share the heavy lifting of memory and recall (“Do you remember that time when…?”). And just as we remember together much better than we do apart, so – under the right circumstances – do we predict the future better together than apart (that’s why, as the Wisdom of Crowds phenomenon shows, betting is often better at predicting the outcome of complex situations than opinion-polling which is based on asking individuals what they think independently of their peers).
Perhaps closer to home, the practice of “tagging” online content is another example of how readily we think together: it’s not the individual tagger’s contribution that matters so much as what we can do when all of us has access to tagged items. But probably the most important aspect of ‘we-think’ is social learning – the amazing way we learn skills, ideas and technologies from those around us and embed that learning in culture so that it doesn’t die. Why think when you can borrow the thinking of others?
Social learning is strikingly prominent in humans – we start copying those around us as early as 42 minutes after birth (according to Andrew Meltzoff’s pioneering work from the 70s which involved him gurning at infants and recording their response). And we continue copying all our life, often without realizing it (have you ever tried to manage your body language so you don’t mimic people you meet at a party? Almost impossible!). Social learning seems a particularly appropriate trait for a creature such as us with a) so much social complexity to learn and prepare for, and who b) starts so early (in relative terms human infants are born some 12 months premature). It’s so important that some scientists have even suggested renaming our species from Homo sapiens (the wise man) to Homo mimicus (the copying man).
Whatever you and I might think with our creative hats on, it’s worth putting aside our scorn for copying as a thinking tactic. Mostly it’s better not to try to do the thinking on your own – other people’s thinking is cheaper and quicker. And it’s often just as good.
And do you think I wrote all this by myself??? I know, disappointing but honest, I did copy….!!