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Why We Never Think Alone

by Steven Sloman & Philip Fernbach

Pub Date: March 14th, 2017
ISBN: 978-0-399-18435-2
Publisher: Riverhead

A tour of the many honeycombs of the hive mind, courtesy of cognitive scientists Sloman (Brown Univ.) and Fernbach (Univ. of Colorado).

You know more than I do, and you know next to nothing yourself. That’s not just a Socratic proposition, but also a finding of recent generations of neuroscientific researchers, who, as Cognition editor Sloman notes, are given to addressing a large question: “How is thinking possible?” One answer is that much of our thinking relies on the thinking of others—and, increasingly, on machine others. As the authors note, flying a plane is a collaboration among pilots, designers, engineers, flight controllers, and automated systems, the collective mastery or even understanding of all of which is beyond the capacity of all but a very few humans. One thought experiment the authors propose is to produce from your mind everything you can say about how zippers work, a sobering exercise that quickly reveals the superficiality of much of what we carry inside our heads. We think we know, and then we don’t. Therein lies a small key to wisdom, and this leads to a larger purpose, which is that traditional assessments of intelligence and performance are off-point: what matters is what the individual mind contributes to the collectivity. If that sounds vaguely collectivist, so be it. All the same, the authors maintain, “intelligence is no longer a person’s ability to reason and solve problems; it’s how much the person contributes to a group’s reasoning and problem-solving process.” This contribution, they add, may not just lie in creativity, but also in doing the grunt work necessary to move a project along. After all, even with better, more effectively distributed thinking, “ignorance is inevitable.”

Some of the book seems self-evident, some seems to be mere padding, and little of it moves with the sparkling aha intelligence of Daniel Dennett. Still, it’s sturdy enough, with interesting insights, especially for team building.