Book review: ‘Joined-Up Thinking’ by Hannah Critchlow
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The science of collective intelligence and its power to change our lives.
For years, when asked to illustrate the difference between the typical Russian and British character I would contrast the English saying “Great minds think alike” with its Russian counterpart, “U durakov misli skhodiatsya” - “Fools think alike.”
Now, having read the latest book by Hannah Critchlow, science outreach fellow at Magdalene College, Cambridge and one of this country’s most prominent young neuroscientists, I will never be tempted to quote that saying again. Why? Because in the excellent ‘Joined-Up Thinking’ (Hodder & Stoughton, £22, ISBN 9781529398397), Critchlow proves beyond doubt that despite appearing to contradict each other, both expressions can be regarded as a manifestation of one and the same growing phenomenon - ‘joined-up thinking’ - whereby an individual’s thinking is replaced with so-called ‘collective intelligence’.
“Scientists are looking at how intelligence arises within the brain-body system as a whole, and between a group of minds that influence one another,” she notes in the first chapter of this ground-breaking book, her second in just three years after her 2019 bestseller ‘The Science of Fate’ (which prompted my ‘After All’ column in January this year).
Referring to the so-called Flynn Effect, according to which general IQ values of different countries have been showing a three-point rise every decade since the end of the Second World War, Critchlow asserts that the very latest data testifies to a certain reversal of that process. A recent study of Norwegian army conscripts, for example, concludes that the individual IQ levels of this particular group are falling steadily. Her explanation is that individual IQs have been gradually compensated with a collectivist approach to intelligence that she dubs ‘joined-up thinking’ or ‘we thinking’.
Each of us can probably recall the point during a meeting or public discussion when suddenly everyone present seemed to be in agreement with everyone else. Such blissful moments can also happen in a cinema, theatre or sports stadium. At that precise point in time, little does it matter if we are all fools or sages. What does matter is that we are suddenly transformed into a kind of multi-headed body with just one functioning brain.
The practical consequences of such a phenomenon are hard to overestimate. The most burning problems of humankind – from conquering the Universe to human immortality - could be resolved by that omnipotent collective brain. As the relevant folk wisdom goes (and there are relevant folk wisdoms to illustrate almost anything, of course), one head is good but two are better. And 102 are better still! All it requires is a super-powerful round of collective brainstorming.
With the help of multiple fascinating experiments that have been conducted all over world from Norway and Sweden to Australia, Critchlow shows that our brains are not just interconnected, but also already naturally programmed to function best collectively. “Humanity has evolved for ‘we’ thinking,” she asserts.
During a recent research trip to Australia, for example, Critchlow looked into the relationship between an individual and the collective in the country’s indigenous communities, which tend to believe in people’s collective cognitive abilities, and each community member is regarded as co-creator of memory and meaning. As someone who has lived in Australia and is familiar with these cultures, I agree with Crichlow’s assumption that studying them can provide one of the routes to collective intelligence for the whole of humankind.
One small warning. For some (particularly for those who, like myself, have lived, or are still living, in a totalitarian state), it would be easy to confuse collective intelligence with the sort of collective mentality that forces everyone to think and to behave in the same ‘politically correct’ manner. It is therefore important to remember that collective mentality is a category of social psychology, not of neuroscience. The resurgence of totalitarian mentality in many places (just look at Putin’s Russia) makes Critchlow’s study of ‘we thinking’ not just encouraging and fascinating, but also extremely topical.
“I love a good parable,” Critchlow confesses in the book’s epilogue, where she uses cross-pollination (the fact that no crop can be cultivated in isolation) as a parable for collective intelligence, when every plant and every brain either suffers or benefits from its neighbours’ performances.
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