No one doubts that we’re social creatures, designed to share food and shelter, but last week I came across some evidence in evolutionary theory suggesting that we’ve also been designed to share our thoughts.
Michael Tomasello, co-director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, has written The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition, a book with a fascinating theory: that people have the power not only to share attention but to understand and imitate and hold someone else’s intention.
This idea got picked up in a recent blog by Philip Fernbach, Steven Sloman, cognitive scientists at the University of Colorado and Brown University, respectively, who write that we were designed to share thoughts and intentions because our own knowledge bank is necessarily narrow.
Think about a heart surgeon; he’s likely to know loads about hearts, but not so much about lungs or kidneys, and may have to enlist a few of wingmen with knowledge of those body parts should his patient develop a pulmonary embolism or have a kidney pack up.
As Fernbach and Sloman put it, ‘The mind is built for collaboration, yet we lionize individual achievement. . . .This is a myth. Great accomplishments demand the ability to share knowledge and work together to solve problems.’
As we evolved and our brains grew ever more sophisticated, we learned to share intentions and pursue joint goals. In other words, we learned to share our thinking together – to become a hypermind.
Brains in tune
After studying the EEGs of a batch of pairs of guitarists, the psychologist Ulman Lindenberger and his colleagues at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, Germany, discovered that when two or more people play music together, their brains begin to mimic each other. The brain waves of each pair become highly synchronized and “in phase”—that is, their brain waves begin peaking and troughing at certain key moments.
Entire areas of the two brains create synchronized patterns, particularly the frontal and central regions, but also the temporal and parietal regions, those parts of our brains that govern our sense of self in space, and in this instance, the synchrony suggests the guitarists begin to feel a sense of unity with their fellow guitarists.
The same team went on to study guitarists who were improvising together and discovered what’s been called a “hyperbrain pattern”—the tendency of the brains to work in tandem so closely that they come to resemble a single giant brain—particularly when both guitarists are playing at the same time.
Other scientists at the University of Lancaster in the United Kingdom and the University “G. d’Annunzio” of Chieti-Pescara in Chieti, Italy, have discovered the same results when studying shared thinking—or what they refer to as Team Mental Models—between groups of jugglers. The juggling pairs develop not only a hyperbrain pattern, but also coordinated heart and breathing rates.
I have discovered similar effects with my Intention Experiments and Power of Eight groups: when a group of any size is sending an intention, they longer are a collection of separate individuals. The borderline separating them has been erased. They become a supercharged hive, a supergroup.
They aren’t just connecting—they’re merging – and the intentions appear to get more powerful.
‘The myth that we can do it all alone – that we can master the world solo in all its detail and complexity – may be comforting, but it is not only wrong: It is also counterproductive,’ say Fernbacha and Sloman.
Of course these scientists are talking about shared knowledge, each of us contributing our own little piece of the knowledge required to do a task, like so many spokes in a wheel. But the same holds true when we’re just setting an intention.
We’re not only better off being in a group, we’re better off thinking in it. What starts out as a single note becomes a thundering symphony.