To Understand Human Cognition Scientists Look Beyond the Individual Brain To Study the Collective Mind

Collective Mind Consciousness

In a new paper, scientists suggest that efforts to understand human cognition should expand beyond the study of individual brains. They call on neuroscientists to incorporate evidence from social science disciplines to better understand how people think.

“Accumulating evidence indicates that memory, reasoning, decision-making and other higher-level functions take place across people,” the researchers wrote in a review in the journal Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience. “Cognition extends into the physical world and the brains of others.”

The co-authors – neuroscientist Aron Barbey, a professor of psychology at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign; Richard Patterson, a professor emeritus of philosophy at Emory University; and Steven Sloman, a professor of cognitive, linguistic and psychological sciences at Brown University – wanted to address the limitations of studying brains in isolation, out of the context in which they operate and stripped of the resources they rely on for optimal function.

U. of I. psychology professor Aron Barbey and his colleagues maintain that human cognition is a collective endeavor. Credit: Photo by L. Brian Stauffer

“In cognitive neuroscience, the standard approach is essentially to assume that knowledge is represented in the individual brain and transferred between individuals,” Barbey said. “But there are, we think, important cases where those assumptions begin to break down.”

Take, for instance, the fact that people often “outsource” the task of understanding or coming to conclusions about complex subject matter, using other people’s expertise to guide their own decision-making.

“Most people will agree that smoking contributes to the incidence of lung cancer – without necessarily understanding precisely how that occurs,” Barbey said. “And when doctors diagnose and treat disease, they don’t transfer all of their knowledge to their patients. Instead, patients rely on doctors to help them decide the best course of action.

Richard Patterson is a professor emeritus of philosophy at Emory University. Credit: Photo by Cynthia Patterson

“Without relying on experts in our community, our beliefs would become untethered from the social conventions and scientific evidence that are necessary to support them,” he said. “It would become unclear, for example, whether ‘smoking causes lung cancer,’ bringing into question the truth of our beliefs, the motivation for our actions.”

To understand the role that knowledge serves in human intelligence, the researchers wrote that it is necessary to look beyond the individual and to study the community.

“Cognition is, to a large extent, a group activity, not an individual one,” Sloman said. “People depend on others for their reasoning, judgment and decision-making. Cognitive neuroscience is not able to shed light on this aspect of cognitive processing.”

The limitations of individual knowledge and human dependence on others for understanding are the themes of “The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone,” a book Sloman wrote with Phil Fernbach, a cognitive scientist and professor of marketing at the University of Colorado.

“The challenge for cognitive neuroscience becomes how to capture knowledge that does not reside in the individual brain but is outsourced to the community,” Barbey said.

Neuroscientific methods such as functional MRI were designed to track activity in one brain at a time and have limited capacity for capturing the dynamics that occur when individuals interact in large communities, he said.

Steven A. Sloman is a co-author of “The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone.” Credit: Photo by Thad Russell

Some neuroscientists are trying to overcome this limitation. In a recent study, researchers placed two people face-to-face in a scanner and tracked their brain activity and eye movements while they interacted. Other teams use a technique called “hyperscanning,” which allows the simultaneous recording of brain activity in people who are physically distant from each another but interacting online.

Such efforts have found evidence suggesting that the same brain regions are activated in people who are effectively communicating with one another or cooperating on a task, Barbey said. These studies are also showing how brains operate differently from one another, depending on the type of interaction and the context.

Several fields of research are ahead of neuroscience in understanding and embracing the collective, collaborative nature of knowledge, Patterson said. For example, “social epistemology” recognizes that knowledge is a social phenomenon that depends on community norms, a shared language and a reliable method for testing the trustworthiness of potential sources.

“Philosophers studying natural language also illustrate how knowledge relies on the community,” Patterson said. “For example, according to ‘externalism,’ the meaning of words depends on how they are used and represented within a social context. Thus, the meaning of the word and its correct use depends on collective knowledge that extends beyond the individual.”

To address these shortfalls, neuroscientists can look to other social science fields, Barbey said.

“We need to incorporate not only neuroscience evidence, but also evidence from social psychology, social anthropology and other disciplines that are better positioned to study the community of knowledge,” he said.

Reference: “Cognitive Neuroscience Meets the Community of Knowledge” by Steven A. Sloman, Richard Patterson and Aron K. Barbey, 21 October 2021, Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience.
DOI: 10.3389/fnsys.2021.675127

Aron Barbey is professor of psychology, neuroscience, and bioengineering at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and an affiliate of the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology.


View Comments

  • Academia loves to push collectivism. That's all this is -- they're looking for new ways to incorporate and legitimate "Social Anthropology," which has found no use in the modern world apart from leading young naïve minds toward the idea of cultural relativism and collectivism. This sort of stuff is exactly why academia needs to be reassessed completely, and much of it rejected as navel-gazing nonsense.

  • Collective Mind? Seriously?

    This is just another way the human brain uses resources--- like visual observations, written resources AND other people.

  • Nu, so what else is new? One can go to Berger and Luckmann’s classic The Social Construction of Reality, which is erected on the foundations of Alfred Schutz’s phenomenological sociological social psychology. There’s also a case to be made for a good deal of overlap with Vygotsky’s zone of proximal distance which was also embraced by Luria.

    • That's precisely it. This is a push to elevate the status of Social Science and Anthropology, while simultaneously downplaying the importance of individual I.Q. This is classic Marxism, and exactly how academics try to push it. Leftists want to destroy the notion of heritable intelligence. They despise the notion that different cultures have different I.Q.s, because it destroys their most basic premises. The New Left claims to "love science," but they really prefer the squishy social sciences, which they can bend to their will. Anthropology, which cultural relativism being its chief "contribution" to the world, is a Marxist's favorite arsenal of BS.

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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