The Science of Collective Working
The interconnected working methods of the future and how we can harness the power of collective intelligence.Continue Reading ↓
In this essay neuroscientist, Dr Hannah Critchlow, expands on her stimulating talk as part of Selfridges’ Mapping the Future festival in September 2022, delving further into the science behind group thinking whilst outlining the tools we can utilise to best harness our collaborative brainpower for the benefit of ourselves, our businesses, and the future. Drawing on cutting-edge research into the inner workings of our brains, Dr Critchlow reveals how we can work collectively to better problem solve, innovate, and boost decision making, and how we can structure our lives, teams, businesses and industries to work better – together.
As a species, we are capable of great things – but think about what we could accomplish if we could make better use of our individual brain power, and work more collectively? Humanity is facing epoch-defining challenges, and in order to meet those challenges, we will need to increase consensus-building in both large and small scale ways, and creatively solve problems together with a minimum of conflict. In this essay, we will examine cutting-edge neuroscience to discover how to support better group working and help us communicate, problem solve and innovate more effectively. We’ll see how it is possible to balance out biases across a group to help boost decision making and think more clearly and creatively, and we will investigate whether we can structure lives, teams and businesses to better facilitate collective working and create the right conditions for collaboration. To make this research more tangible, there is a downloadable set of exercises at the end of this text, to help you incorporate greater collective intelligence into your daily lives, at home and at work.
Let’s start at the beginning – with the evolution of our brains. It is thought our species has survived and thrived in part due to our large neocortex relative to the size of the rest of our brains. This region helps us to form relationships with many diﬀerent people, so that new ideas can hop from mind to mind and take greater shape as they go, helping our species to problem solve more eﬀectively into the future. In early human life, we may have operated in smaller social groups, but humanity now appears to be undergoing an evolutionary transition, moving towards an increasingly socially-integrated mega-group. For the first time in our species’ history, the effect of culture seems to be superseding the effects of genetics. This new emphasis on group intelligence, and our ability to form ever larger groups, has been ampliﬁed by some of the technologies we are being compelled to create, allowing ways of thinking to cross geographical borders and cultures more swiftly than ever before
To compound these evolutionary changes, there have been recent and phenomenal developments in neuroengineering, accelerating our move toward a collective mega-group. For example, it’s now possible to take copies of a memory from a donor brain and electrically imprint it onto a recipient’s brain to boost learning. Or consider the development of ‘BrainNets’, which use magnetic stimulation to facilitate direct brain-to-brain communication, creating a super brain of interconnected problem solvers. In the future, it might be possible to enlist millions of brains to work together as a ‘biological computer’ to tackle questions that could not be posed, or answered, in any individual form. But for now, there are less futuristic findings from neuroscience that could help us naturally tackle the problems in our everyday lives – to problem solve, build consensus and work together to tackle the biggest issues facing our generation, and with future generations in mind.
We are rapidly shattering the myth of the lone genius – brains simply don’t work best in isolation. The pandemic helped us to realise how much we need each other: company is linked to not only better body health but also better brain health. Research from the pandemic indisputably shows that spending time with other people helps lift mental fog, increases our IQ score, and helps new ideas hop from mind to mind to create an avalanche of innovation.
Part of the power of many minds lies in being part of the right, diverse, team. By surrounding ourselves with many diﬀerent people, with a broad range of expertise and experiences, there is greater intelligence on offer. Team diversity also helps balance out any bias or blindspots that exist within any one individual. Throughout our lifetimes we each build up many diﬀerent biases or assumptions, aﬀected by genetics or experiences, which can result in our not agreeing on the same reality. We might each have a diﬀerent perspective on the diﬀerent layers of assumptions we make about the world. Why is this? Well, as sophisticated as our brains are they have to take shortcuts in their information processing. That’s because they have vast amounts of data to analyse every second and the brain can’t possibly churn through it all. So, we take shortcuts in processing using existing neural circuitry in the brain. It’s our genetics and our experiences that help shape which shortcuts we each make in our data analysis. In a diverse team, these individual biases can cancel each other out so that – as a group – we reach the right answer, one drawn from diverse points of view.
So how can we structure a team for better decision making? There are a few considerations that may help us to put together a group diverse enough to balance out biases and boost innovation. Firstly, our brains change during a typical lifespan, with younger people (generally) being more innovative and better at lateral problem solving and older people having more experience of the world around them. Having a broad range of ages in a group provides both innovation and experience. Secondly, putting together a group with a diversity of experience can reveal problems (or solutions) in a new or different light. There is a reason why a 1 percent rise in foreign STEM employment in America increases college-educated naive wage growth between 5.6 and 9.3 percentage points; why immigrants make up 13 percent of the American population but have created a third of the patents since 2000; and why, when analysing over 20 million scientiﬁc publications spanning ﬁve decades, and over 2 million patents, the main indicator for success is having teams of people combining atypical subject combinations – for example bringing together a mathematician, a theologian, an anatomist and geneticist to work on a problem. These examples demonstrate the importance of pooling expertise and cognitive diversity, to create a larger amount of brain power and experience. Finally, don’t ignore genetics! A myriad of complex behaviours such as autism, ADHD and other neurodivergent behaviours have genetic elements to them. There are diﬀerent brain strengths, and perceived weaknesses, associated with these diﬀerent characteristics across the spectrum. So, it makes sense to recruit a neurodiverse group to make the most of the range of behaviours our species is capable of.
Even after you’ve recruited the dream team, it can be tricky getting them to communicate eﬀectively. In part this is due to dominance dynamics: in a typical four-person group, two people do 62 percent of the talking, and in a six person group, three people do 70 percent of talking. In fact, it gets progressively worse as the group size gets bigger. This reduces the brain power available to the group, because some people are hesitant to speak up and therefore the group does not benefit from the full range of brain power on offer. To circumnavigate this problem at Amazon, Jeﬀ Bezos has insisted on a period of ‘golden silence’ at the start of each meeting, time to reﬂect and digest information before contributing. When the group does start the discussion, the most senior person speaks last. Studies have also shown that teams headed by junior management members are more likely to succeed for similar reasons, whilst brainwriting (anonymously writing down ideas) generates twice the volume of ideas versus brainstorming, and they are higher quality ideas. But the most robust, replicable, ﬁnding that predicts group intelligence success is actually gender ratio! The more females in a team, the better the group is at problem solving and reaching a goal. Behaviours such as listening and turn taking is thought to be more practised in females, due to the cultural expectations. So perhaps we need to foster these skills more in males and structure society in a way to better harness this brain resource in females? Some of the exercises suggested at the end of this essay also remind us to listen and reflect when working in a group, why not try using them in your next meeting?
What about our working environments? Is there anything we can do to create ‘scenius’ – environments that foster genius? Firstly, we can decrease the negative eﬀects of stress. We know that short bursts of stress can be a good thing, and that stress can temporarily boost brain plasticity and help increase our alertness. But longer-term stress literally kills brain cells and strips them of connections, contributing to the deterioration of their memory. Chronic pressure can also cause the fear centre of the brain – the amygdala – to become hyperactive and hypersensitive, which makes us focus on the immediate threat here and now, rather than activating the insula and cingulate cortex areas of the brain which are involved in broader thinking, and looking for partnerships and collaborations that help problem solving and innovation for the future. Long-term stress can therefore literally shrink your brain and zap your creativity. Relaxation and rest can combat the bad effects of long-term stress, so it’s important to practise self-care, and to facilitate your team to be able to do the same. Meditation has been proven to increase gamma waves, the fastest speed electrical oscillations in the brain, helping to integrate information from disparate regions and promote joined-up thinking. It can also help to synchronise electrical oscillations in the brain between people, and when we do, it helps to boost learning, build consensus, and improve cooperation. We also know it is possible to boost brain synchronicity between people through direct eye contact, playing music, singing together and exercise. So, setting up running clubs, gardening areas, choirs, rowing teams, laughter yoga, comedy teams are all activities that could help boost brain power within a group – and provide some much-needed stress relief.
Our brains produce 20 Watts of power at any time. Across the globe that’s over 155 billion watts of human problem-solving, connection, and innovation. Imagine what we could achieve if we could tap into that collective power? Imagine the projects we could tackle, the creations we could conjure up, the problems we could solve, how we could transform our worlds for the better? As a species, we have never been faced with problems as complex or difficult as the ones we face now. By turning to neuroscience, we can identify strategies that might enable us to pool our brain power and develop solutions equal to these challenges – together.
To get you started, here are some exercises from the science of collective working that you can incorporate into your life, to start making the most of the brain power that is on oﬀer to you alone, or in your teams.
Practise the art of listening
Set aside time with your team to sit with each other, to talk and listen. Each person has ﬁve minutes in which they can speak, without any interruption, about any topic they choose. The other members get to practise active listening, giving the person who is talking their full attention without jumping in with any comments or questions. This can feel a little bit strange at ﬁrst – we are so used to the back and forth of conversation – but practising deep listening can be immensely liberating and empowering, and it can build a deep connection between individuals.
Sit with silence together
At the beginning of a meeting or gathering, highlight any issues that need resolving, then sit in silence for three minutes. This might feel uncomfortable at ﬁrst, but invite people to let their minds wander, consider the aim of the meeting and allow any thoughts and associations to rise to the surface. This practice can foster the skill of knowing when, and when not, to speak. It also provides a quiet space for contemplation, and time for solo brain work before coming together in wider discussion.
Cultivate curiosity rather than fear
If you’re feeling overwhelmed or stressed, try imagining how diﬀerent brain regions are involved in the way you think. The fear response arises from the amygdala, the small almond-shaped structure in the middle of your brain, whereas calmer, more rational thinking arises from the prefrontal cortex, the large region behind your forehead. Imagine these structures in your brain as the focus for ﬁve minutes of calm.
Now set a timer and sit in a comfortable position. Close your eyes and bring to mind a situation you’ve been involved with recently that felt unsettling. Nothing traumatic; perhaps a sharp word with your partner or a disagreement with a colleague. Now, take some deep slow breaths in and out. Allow yourself to replay the scenario and feel the feelings of irritation, threat or uncertainty that come up. You might need a minute or two to let them subside a little. Then, picture yourself responding diﬀerently from the way you did at the time. If you dismissed your colleague’s point of view, can you now cultivate some curiosity about why they might think that way? What could you learn? If they dismissed yours, can you try to imagine what was motivating them, exercising as much empathy as possible? Imagine your small, almond-shaped amygdala shrinking even further and dimming in activity and your prefrontal cortex, behind your forehead, lighting up with activity, forming new connections in your brain as you explore diﬀerent responses. Focus your attention on the idea of a brain that’s busy learning from interactions rather than closing down in response to them.
Create your own Brainet
If you have a tricky problem to solve, channel other perspectives by mentally assembling a group of people whom you know well. Imagine having a conversation with them, talking through the issues. What would they advise? Is there anything you could take away from their way of thinking? If they are still alive and available, could you contact them for their thoughts?
Now try to think of someone whom you know and respect but whose perspective is very diﬀerent from yours. What would be their take on the situation? How would they tackle it? If you would not follow their suggestions, why not? Put yourself in the position of looking for the positive or useful in an approach you don’t normally take. Once you’ve practised carrying this out as a thought experiment, consider whether you feel able to ask for advice from this person whose thinking is diﬀerent from yours. Would they be interested in swapping ideas with you? Invite them into a dialogue. Creating our own Brainet through active listening and respectful conversation fosters collective intelligence and can mean the diﬀerence between cracking a problem or giving up.
Be aware of the impact of power
For this exercise to work, you need to perform it in real time, as you read each stage of the following instructions. Don’t skip ahead!
Start by closing your eyes. You’re going to recall a time when you were in a position of power. Perhaps you were a referee at a football match or chairing a meeting. Spend some time conjuring up that feeling of being in charge. Did you make decisions? Direct other people to do things? How did this make you feel? Now, with your eyes still closed, take the hand that you write with and use your index ﬁnger to trace a capital letter E on your forehead. Now open your eyes. How did you draw the E? Would it be the right way round for other people to read it, if they were looking at you? Or did you draw it correctly for you, as if your forehead were a piece of paper you were looking at?
When researchers conducted this experiment in the lab, volunteers primed with power tended to draw an E that was correct from their (internal) point of view but appeared mirror-reversed from the point of view of someone standing opposite them. In contrast, those who were not primed with power were much more likely to think from other people’s perspective and draw the E as a mirror image, so that it was immediately legible to others. This experiment demonstrates how leaders are vulnerable to the impact of power on their brains. Overall – studies demonstrate that power reduces individuals’ tendency to comprehend how other people see, think, and feel, reduces empathy and increases egocentricity. Power dampens down the electrical activity of the mirror neurons in the brain, the nerve cells associated with the ability to empathise and relate to others. It de-activates the vegas nerve, a bundle of ﬁbres connecting the abdomen to the brain that also runs through the heart. Huge swathes of information enter our senses, around 11 billion bytes of data, every second, but we are only consciously aware of 40 bytes of it – a miniscule proportion. A large amount of data is stored subliminally by our bodies, in our guts, heart, and lungs. Crucially it seems power dampens down our brains ability to process and integrate the full repertoire of information from the world around us eﬀectively, hampering our ability to pick up cues and intelligence, from other people and the environment.
At times, leaders have to make diﬃcult decisions, and in doing so they must remain aware but not bogged down by other people’s sensitivities, perspectives and needs. It’s a balancing act. But, in order to be innovate, create, and eﬀectively problem solve it helps if we can take other people’s viewpoint on board, and to tap into their brain power. We can to a certain extent immunise ourselves against the eﬀect of power by undertaking activities that allow us to practise our ‘we’ thinking: active listening and reﬂecting on interactions, mindfulness meditation, voluntary work and even reading ﬁction are proven to be eﬀective, whilst also training our introspective ability, as we discover below.
Training Your introspective ability
Find a quiet place and make yourself comfortable. Set a timer for one minute. Close your eyes and take some deep breaths as you tune into your body. You’re going to try to detect your heartbeat simply by listening to or feeling its vibrations. This can be tricky, so be patient. When you’re ready, start the timer and count your heartbeats for a minute. Repeat the exercise, this time taking your pulse in your wrist or neck. Observe how much easier this is and whether your previous assessment was accurate. Tip: if you’re struggling to detect your heartbeat, try running up and down some stairs or doing star jumps until your heart pounds. Then try to stick with it as it returns to normal.
By doing exercises like we just did, taking time to listen to our heartbeats, our embodied cognition, might access information from the world around in a more balanced way? Professor Sarah Garﬁnkle at UCL is one researcher who has been working on exercises that help us to tap into our intuition or introspective ability, increasing sensitivity to our vagus nerve and allowing us to tap into all of the information available from our environment, and other people.
Reﬂect on and repeat the positives in life
For one full week, dedicate ten minutes at the end of each day to write a list of the interactions or moments that left you feeling positive. These could be conversations that made you feel joy or sparked intrigue or spaces in which you felt calm or happy. On the other side of the page, list instances where you felt negative emotions, be they frustration, irritation, disappointment or anger. At the end of the week, reﬂect on your lists and use them as prompts for decisions about how you behave over the following week. Go back to those spaces that made you feel positive. Learn from your own experience and arrange to meet up with the people who left you feeling good. As for the list of negatives, avoid those people, places and situations, or consider how you could structure them diﬀerently to increase your chance of experiencing them more positively.
Dr Hannah Critchlow is a neuroscientist and the Science Outreach Fellow at Magdalene College, University of Cambridge. She was named a Top 100 UK Scientist by the Science Council for her work in science communication and a ‘rising star’ in life sciences by Nature magazine in 2019. Hannah is listed as one of the University of Cambridge’s ‘inspirational and successful women in science’. Alongside her teaching, she appears regularly on TV, radio and at festivals where she explores and demystifies the brain.