Collective Intelligence Will Outsmart You

A conversation with neuroscientist and bestselling author Hannah Critchlow

“Joined-up thinking,” biological determinism, and why it is so hard for us to change.

After talking to a neuroscientist, I often feel a bit brainwashed. Neuroscientists seem to be able to explain much of our behavior, even make predictive computations, and yet their findings always leave me somewhat disenchanted. The human brain is a miracle, no doubt, but for me it is equally riveting to keep that miracle intact, undissected.

Though mysteries remain: We are still not able to solve “the hard problem of consciousness” (a concept formulated by cognitive scientist, philosopher, and The__Dream speaker David Chalmers), and it is still disputed whether our mind is just our brain (as neuro-materialists insist), or a different phenomenon altogether (energy that flows through the brain or our body, for example, or some kind of atomic field surrounding us that we simply tap into). Moreover, there is the emerging field of neuroengineering and the looming threat of what one might call neural Darwinism: the survival of the smartest brain-machine interface.

So it was refreshing for me to meet Hannah Critchlow, a neuroscientist with a background in neuropsychiatry—an open-minded materialist, if you will, who is a not only a master of translating complex science into a more inclusive language, but also an unabashed optimist when it comes to neuroscience’s practical benefits.

Hannah is the author of Consciousness: A Ladybird Expert Guide (2018), The Sunday Times bestseller The Science of Fate (2019), and most recently, Joined-Up Thinking (2022). In 2019 she was named by Nature as one of Cambridge University’s “Rising Stars in Life Sciences” in recognition for her achievements in science engagement. Her work in science communication saw her named as a “Top 100 UK Scientist” by the International Science Council in 2014, and one of Cambridge University’s most “inspirational and successful women in science” in 2013.

Hannah will be one of the speakers at The__Dream, the world’s most beautiful business festival taking place in Sintra, Portugal from June 2-5, 2023, and the conversation I conducted with her via Zoom last week made me even more excited about her joining us in person next summer.

Tim Leberecht

Tim Leberecht: So, Hannah, who do you think is going to win the World Cup?

Hannah Critchlow: I haven’t been following it at all. Sorry! I thought England had been knocked out because they’d been beaten by America at the weekend. But apparently it was a draw and they wouldn’t have been knocked out even if they had lost. I was corrected on that by a seven-year-old child as I took my son to school yesterday morning. So I’m really not the person to ask about anything football-related.

Ok, fair enough. I wanted to start this conversation with football because it touches both upon collective intelligence, the topic of your latest book, Joined-Up Thinking, but also the question of performance based on genetic disposition—the topic of your second book, The Science of Fate, in which you make the case for our DNA determining much of our behaviors throughout life. Tell us more.

There are 3.2 billion base pairs of DNA that we’ve been given from our mom and dad, from their sperm and egg, and they combine in a really unique way to create us. This provides each one of us with a very individual DNA code that acts as a blueprint for our life. It dictates how our bodies and brains are put together, and how they’re going to operate throughout our existence.

We can now sequence each of our DNA codes in less than 30 minutes, and it costs less than a $1,000. This ability to read our DNA allows us to see that it’s not just very basic physical attributes like our height, eye, or hair color that gives a biological predisposition written into our genes, but also really complex behaviors as well, like ideology, how our belief systems might be set up, how impulsive we might be, how long we might live, or even how resilient we might be to mental health conditions. Now, if we look at the genetic predisposition of something like ideology, when we analyze our DNA, it's estimated that it’s got a 40 percent heritability level which is a measure of how differences in people’s genes account for differences in their traits.

There are thousands of genes working in tandem to help create our ideology beliefs. And some of these genes have also been tied to particular brain anatomical states. So people that are more conservative are more likely to have a larger connectivity volume in their amygdala, which is a region of the brain that's involved in appraising threats and having an initiating fear response for the here and now. Whereas people with a more liberal persuasion have a higher connectivity volume within their anterior cingulate cortex, a brain region involved in monitoring uncertainty, collaborating, and forming novel partnerships in order to problem-solve effectively into the future.

In order to create a smoothly running society, we need to both protect the here and now, and problem-solve and look effectively into the future. So it’s a good idea to have that in balance across society.

This is really fascinating, but also terrifying. If free will is an illusion, how much agency do we have? One field where this tension is perhaps most tangible is romantic love. I remember once speaking about my book The Business Romantic at a conference, and the speaker after me was a neuroscientist. And she said, “That’s all great, but romance—it’s like this little part of the brain. That’s it, there’s not more to it.” That really broke my heart. Help me fix it please.

First of all, as we’ve seen with ideology, it's only a 40 percent heritability. So there’s still a lot of mystery or romance there, 60 percent to put a number on it! We're only starting to understand the mechanistic nuts and bolts of our behavior, and it’s only in the past 20 years that our understanding has truly started to blossom and bloom.

Science can be quite romantic in itself, as it may help us grasp the reason behind the complexity of our world. Take the biology of sociability, for example, how we form bonds with people. Robin Dunbar, professor of anthropology at Oxford University, has been looking at particular regions in the front of the brain, and how they are much larger relative to the rest of the brain for our species in particular. It’s thought that the increased area of the neocortex region has been key to our success as a species, because it enables us to form bonds, friendships, and partnerships with other people. Back in our species’ history, when there were periods of drought, famine, attack, or anything that we might have had to defend ourselves against back on the savanna, belonging to a group meant we were better able to support each other and survive. Operating as part of a tribe meant access to a greater cognitive power. More brains create more ideas, and more problem-solving capacity.

There’s a specific brain region within this area called the orbitofrontal cortex, and its size relative to the rest of the brain varies between individuals. There are people, you might call them introverts, who have a different type of social style to people with a much larger orbitofrontal cortex. Introverts may “know” fewer people, but they typically invest more energy in each one of those bonds. They are really good at creating villages of support. Whereas the extroverts have a larger orbitofrontal cortex region, and, according to Dunbar, they probably have more beta endorphin slots within that region, because it’s a larger volume. They’re literally driven to go around and meet more people in order to fill those rewarding beta endorphin slots in the brain, to get that “feel good” feeling they’re seeking. Being driven to behave in this way helps ensure that these introverted silos of support, where there’s lots of energy being put into each relationship bond, actually doesn’t become an echo chamber of clone-like ideas. Extroverts help ideas hop from supported group to supported group, encouraging innovation and creativity to migrate across groups, so that our species can thrive.

So, we are starting to uncover the way that we form relationships, and why we are driven to do it in particular ways. The heritability of relationship forming is thought to be less than 50 percent, so there’s still some mystery or romance to it, and maybe the glimmers of scientific understanding we’re getting on these complex topics actually help make our relationships and bonds more powerful as we gain a greater understanding?

Let’s try to transfer some of these insights to the world of business. What can you tell companies and business leaders about people’s capacity for change from a neuroscientific point of view?

That’s really complicated, because the brain uses 20 percent of our daily energy. It’s a really hungry beast. We’re already consuming quite a lot of calories in order to keep our brain operating. That’s in part due to a mechanism called synaptic plasticity, which is how we form new connections in our mind, as we learn and remember from our environment. This construction work requires huge amounts of energy, and the process underpins our consciousness, and our ability to form a subjective, individual view of reality based on the culmination of our shared and unique life experiences.

Recent work from University College London shows that in some ways, although we have the capacity to learn from our environment, we also filter out information as a result of what we’ve been exposed to previously. Illusions, like the hollow mask illusion, help us understand this.

When you get to the back end of the hollow mask that’s rotating, the shadows are telling you that the eyes and the nose are pointing backwards, but your brain just sees it as another face pointing forwards. So your brain conjures up this image of another face, even though the shadow information is telling you that it’s not the case.

“If you bring people together and allow them to discuss freely what their sense of reality is, as long as they’ve got a similar kind of intelligence level, they will combine and create a more accurate representation of reality than individuals working alone.”

The hollow mask illusion is an example of a consensus in our wrongness. All of us are used to seeing faces in the environment rather than the back end of a mask, so, generally speaking, all of us will fall for that illusion. But because our brain takes these shortcuts and builds circuits as a result of our different learnt experiences, we have a very individual cartography of the mind that dictates how we see the world. And some people take very different shortcuts in information processing to others!

This is why it can sometimes be difficult for people to work with each other. A group of people can be literally seeing the world in different ways due to their brain biology, and that can result in conflict. But recent studies show that if you bring people together, and allow them to discuss freely what their sense of reality is, as long as they’ve got a similar kind of intelligence level, they can combine and create a more accurate representation of reality than individuals working alone.

This is a perfect segue to your new book, Joined-Up Thinking, which presents another uncomfortable provocation for a romantic like me, because your main argument is that the individual creator, or the lone genius, is a myth, while collective intelligence is increasingly valuable.

When we come together as a group, we create intelligence that’s much greater than any one individual. There is this myth of the lone genius working by themselves, but that’s simply not the case. Newton, for example, wasn’t working in isolation: he was at Cambridge University, studying in a collegiate system. The foundation for an Oxbridge education is that it mixes people from different backgrounds, with different expertises. They’re not working in isolation, but within this system that is bringing people together from various disciplines, so that ideas can hop from mind to mind in the supervision system which promotes debate and discussion. And people can start to create stronger ideas as they communicate them, and discuss them with others.

If you look at economic forecasts, particularly during periods of uncertainty, when you take an average from different people over an extended period of time, it’s more accurate and much more representative than any individuals working by themselves over that prolonged period of time. Or when you ask the audience in Who Wants to Be A Millionaire, for example, their success rate at getting the correct answer is 91 percent, which is pretty high. So when you get groups of people together, particularly groups from different backgrounds and areas of expertise, you start to balance out any biases that individuals might have, correct for different erroneous information processing they might be making, and nudge up the intelligence that’s on offer.

“We may have reached a peak in terms of our individual intelligence.”

Another point: our IQ levels are thought to have increased year-on-year since they were first measured and reported, which is something called the Flynn effect. That is, until we get people born in the 1970s, at which point we start to see, across Europe and parts of Asia, a decline in our IQ for the first time. And I think that suggests we may have reached a peak in terms of our individual intelligence. There are arguments within the scientific community that the next evolutionary transition is moving us away from this competitive individualism, and towards the creation of a connected supergroup.

How does this relate to leadership and the work environment, and how we interact with our colleagues? Well, again, there’s lots of research looking at how our brains interact and how we create a more accurate representation of the world together. Neuroscientists have been studying the electrical oscillations of individual brains working in a group successfully together. And what they can see is that our brains work by sending these electric signals that actually produce our perception of the world—our thoughts, our ideas, our emotions—and dictate how we interact with the world. Scientists are able to use electrodes to measure those oscillations, which are whooshing at speeds of 120 or 150 miles an hour across our brains. As a group of people are building consensus, and working effectively together, those oscillations between individual brains start to become in step with each other.

If collective intelligence has really risen to become more important and strong, why are we failing on the biggest, most daunting challenge to our species, which is climate change? What needs to happen so we can actually tackle that pressing challenge collectively?

Although our brains have achieved amazing things during our species’ history, we should also be hugely embarrassed by the way we’ve behaved. Statistically speaking, we’re more deadly to ourselves than the most bloodthirsty crocodile or shark. We’ve been killing our own kind for at least 10,000 years, and we’ve caused something like a billion deaths worldwide, of our own species, through warfare alone. So although we’ve got great intelligence, we’ve also got huge amounts of stupidity as well.

So what’s the neuroscience behind that? There’s some lovely work looking at how emotions and negative moral values can contagiously ripple across people. We’ve got a great tendency for wanting and needing to operate as part of a group. And sometimes it can be tempting to consider that more than the actual content of what we’re doing. Again, there are many examples of how social media, although it can be positive in allowing perspectives to spread, can also be manipulative.

“What we’ve seen from the pandemic is that, as a species, there is a huge drive within us to continue to reach out, evolve, and interact with each other.”

What needs to happen is a global mandate. An international community that helps to regulate a lot of these technologies, the impact of which is rippling out across borders. The legislative environment needs to evolve alongside these global technologies, in order to support them, to ensure that they can be used more effectively. And that’s really why I wanted to write Joined-Up Thinking, to discuss this evolutionary transition that we seem to be going through, how we’re moving as a species towards this interconnected mega group. There’s a lot of neuroscience data to help explain it, but I think we also need to ensure that there is some kind of appreciation for how much it could be used for good, and the issues that surround it as well. We need to have a bit of legislative support to ensure that it’s all being used in the best positive way.

Do you foresee a hybridization of human and artificial intelligence?

I don’t think it’s something that we should necessarily fear. I don’t want to be a scaremonger or provoke fear or hysteria, because that, frankly, is not going to help. Going back to ideology, that’s just going to hyper-activate the amygdala, at the expense of that anterior cingulate cortex, the region involved in problem-solving, collaborating and working towards the future. We need this system operating, there’s no point in the doom and gloom and thinking “Facebook or social media are bad,” or “Elon Musk buying Twitter is the worst thing ever, let’s all just hunker down and operate in isolation.” What we’ve seen from the pandemic is that, as a species, there is a huge drive within us to continue to reach out, evolve, and interact with each other. We should celebrate that and work with it in a really positive way, and do so with integrity and purpose.

Being so aware of the genetic code and as a neuroscientist, what makes you unique?

My family history has quite a lot of mystery. It turns out that my mother’s side of the family were living in Europe, possibly around Germany, and emigrated and changed their name, in the lead-up to WW2, at which point my grandmother moved to London to help with translation efforts. We’re trying to uncover more about this history and it’s interesting, because there’s all this data coming out now regarding epigenetics and how different experiences can possibly transmit biologically across generations. How memories are encoded in the confirmation of the DNA, affecting how enzymes can access different genes to direct their expression, and how that neural circuitry, that foundation for thought, is laid down.

I think it was also quite unusual that I went to work, as an 18 year-old, in a psychiatric hospital, during my year out instead of traveling around the world, taking up an internship, or going off to university. I think that had a profound effect on me. As did living for a decade offgrid, as a semi-nomad, on a houseboat in Cambridge. I find it fascinating to think about how the experiences of my forebears and my choices now might be linked, and how they help forge my current perception of the world and life trajectory.

What was the most important insight that you gathered during your work in a psychiatric hospital?

That everybody’s got a very different back story. Lots of people might have experienced huge challenges in their lives, but, hopefully, great satisfaction and joy, too. Sometimes the systems are not in place to support everybody, to make the most of them. We need to have more compassion to try and nurture our species’ diversity, and support each other’s idiosyncrasies. I’m not sure that 20 years ago, when I was working in the hospital, that was the case, but things have changed a lot recently. Neuroscience knowledge and various technologies now allow people to communicate and form groups more readily, to support each other and help their strengths shine through. It’s really exciting to be living during this period, when our species is undergoing such an important evolutionary transition, and where the true power of our collective can be unleashed. And it’s our job to make sure that power is being used for the success of our species, to help it flourish.

The interview was recorded on Zoom and edited for length and clarity.


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