Features, Philosophy, Research & Resources, The Human Mind Project
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What’s on your mind?

The Human Mind Project hosted by the School of Advanced Study (SAS), recently secured substantial funding from the Higher Education Council for England (Hefce). Dr Mattia Gallotti, the Project’s manager and a researcher in philosophy of mind and society, writes about its future.

The continuing efforts of the humanities and human sciences bear testimony that thoughts and experiences are central to the way in which we make sense of the world, especially ourselves and other people. A narrative of the mind, however, is more than a post-hoc reconstruction of the kind of people we have become. A narrative of the mind, the richer and more exhaustive the better, is a claim about how we are.

As the poet Rainer Maria Rilke remarked, the importance of memories for writing poetry becomes all the more apparent when ‘they have changed into our very blood, into glance and gesture, and are nameless, no longer to be distinguished from ourselves’. This is why an account of mental experience should not be the exclusive domain of one form of culture and language, or of a cluster of disciplines. A story of the mind is a story of what makes us human, one informed by the best science of the day as well as by a humanistic understanding of the contingencies of life and history.

How this story ought to be told today is the big question facing us all across the social, human and natural sciences. To make headway with this challenging task SAS launched The Human Mind Project in December 2013, on the premise that the study of the mind has progressed immensely thanks to the intellectual and financial efforts in areas of cognitive research such as the neurosciences. But this premise goes hand in hand with the recognition that progress has not yet resulted in a truly comprehensive and critical new answer to the question about the nature and function of the mind. Perhaps this is because disciplinary boundaries impede efforts to advance the understanding of the richness and diversity of mental activity.

During the ‘pilot’ phase of the Project, we used a variety of formats to create a space for encouraging debates about the mind between the natural sciences, and the arts and humanities. We invited distinguished scholars to take part in meetings, debates and conferences, with the goal to raise awareness of the importance of integrating disciplinary perspectives in an age of increased specialisation.

In the midst of these efforts came the grant from Hefce’s Catalyst Fund, which will allow us to pursue an ambitious two and a half year plan of research facilitation, publications, consultation and a rich programme of academic and outreach activities. The grant will help the Project to open up novel fora for genuine interdisciplinary dialogue among researchers, which would otherwise be unavailable due to institutional compartmentalisation and traditional divides between ‘different’ cultures.

In one of our next events, for example, we will bring together researchers from the social and cognitive sciences, as well as public policy and information analysis, to discuss forms of social intelligence. It will also be a celebration of an unprecedented partnership between The Human Mind Project and the UK’s National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (Nesta).

‘Collective intelligence’ is not new, but what makes it an interesting and timely case study of the importance of an integrated approach is its potential to enlighten more general aspects of the architecture of the mind. We often hear that groups are smarter than individuals, and that mind sharing and crowdsourcing are good for the economy, so we should rely on the ‘wisdom’ of crowds while being cautioned against the folly of the mobs.

There is a common thread in all these phenomena, which is worth analysing through the lens of a multi-disciplinary perspective. They are all expressions of the capacity of individuals to join forces and achieve outcomes that neither could do alone. We now know a lot more about the mechanisms and processes by which we individually make decisions together, but too often the fruits of this work remain confined to an enclave of experts within academia, if not inside the ‘borders’ of highly specialised teams of close collaborators. This way, specialisation increases while the possibility to articulate an integrated and dispassionate approach to the mind diminishes. By bringing together experts working on the mind in different ways, The Human Mind Project aims to open up avenues for identifying the big questions for future interdisciplinary research.

Dr Mattia Gallotti, is a philosopher with a background in the social sciences and research interests in foundational questions about the ‘social mind’. As well as work in the philosophy of social science, he has done collaborative work with psychologists and neuroscientists, published in cognitive science journals and edited Perspectives on Social Ontology and Social Cognition, the first comprehensive interdisciplinary collection in this rapidly expanding area.

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