Transcript: Collective Consciousness with Sarah Rose Cavanagh

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Turi: we are thrilled to be talking to Sarah Rose Cavanagh. Sarah Rose Cavanagh is a psychologist, a writer, a speaker, a professor, and associate director of the beautifully named D’Amour Center for teaching excellence. At assumption, university of Massachusetts Sara’s work focuses on emotion, what it is and how we regulate it to improve quality of life across everything. From education to democracy. Sarah, it’s fabulous to have you with us on the poly-A podcast.

Sarah Cavanagh: Oh, thank you so much for this opportunity. It’s great to be here.

Turi: it’s great to talk to you, Sarah. We are here to talk about your latest book, Hivemind: the new science of tribalism in our divided world and ominous frightening, but also slightly domestic title we’ll link we’ll link it we’ll link to it in the, in the podcast notes, but, um, just as a, as a kickoff, um, why, why this book and then, and what is a hive mind?

Sarah Cavanagh: well, I it’s interesting because the book, I think books often do this, but it took on its own shape. And so why the book changed over time? And when I first started writing the proposal, it was before the U S 2016 election. And I was really wanted it to be just. A tour through some of my favorite research and psychology and in social neuroscience, um, some of the things that I saw in the classroom and live in my students the most, and then I was interviewing a lot of experts for the books, psychologists, but also historians and people in media.

And it really changed shape over time because the. Going on in the world was, uh, dominating everyone’s thinking. And so it took a darker tone and the focus on polarization, which, um, is a little bit less of a theme than the title suggests. It’s a little bit more still about the social neuroscience bits, um, just became more and more of a focus. And so that’s kind of the story of why and how the book, the. Concept of a hive mind is somewhat more of a cultural or a philosophical one. That it is a scientific one. Although I think there’s a lot of science, uh, underlying it, but it refers to the human tendency to share consensus, thoughts, emotions, and opinions, and whereby when we experience the world together.

It can not just into almost a sort of collective state of consciousness. We don’t really flock like birds or swarm like ants. But I think that we do synchronized together through processes of emotional contagion and social conformity. And this helps us produce shared experiences.

Turi: That’s a very beautiful description you throughout, throughout your book, you also describe things that you are not doing. Can I ask you whether the hive mind is very much not the collective unconscious of young?

Sarah Cavanagh: Right. Um, so I, I don’t think about the hive-mind as sort of a mystical phenomenon. Uh, I think that we can understand it by looking at neuroscience and how people think about the world and experience the world. And it’s really more of a product of our psychology and our neuroscience. Then, then, um, kind of a mystical phenomenon, I think.

Turi: Gotcha. And, um, that’s what I so enjoyed about. Yeah. Your book before we get into the detail of how we function as a hive, it’s a hive. Mind is how the neuroscience and the psychology plays into that. There’s a, there’s an implicit thought in this idea of hive, which is this notion of a superorganism. You talked about ants.

Um, but here you’re talking about bees, all of whom with particular functions, all of whom exists within a collective. Can we think of. Homosapiens as a super organism too.

Sarah Cavanagh: It’s an interesting question. Um, and I think both. Yes and no. I think that, you know, this idea of us as a super organism has been with us for a long time. Uh, there’s a really old sociologist Emile Dirkhiem who said that we should actually be called homo duplex because of our ability to experience the world both as individuals, but also as a collective and. And there are certain ways that we do sync up and, uh, especially in contexts that are dark and if we’re imbibing substances and singing together and chanting together where people do seem, their consciousness gets a little slippery and we do can seem to, um, kind of conglomorate into this collective shared consciousness in the moment.

Uh, but that’s pretty rare. And I think more when I’m talking about hive mind. And when we think about human beings as very collective, it’s more to do with, um, with again, consensus, thoughts, and opinions, um, and synchrony than it is with our actual consciousness, you know, melding and us being a super organism. Okay.

Turi: You you discuss Jonathan height, the author of the righteous mind and father of moral foundations theory in the book, um, who, um, Who comes at this particular political problem with a particular answer again, talking about this idea of the super organism, which is that, um, Democrats need Republicans, Republicans need deep Democrats because they temper their most extreme tendencies.

Um, that’s a little bit, what I’m wondering here is, is whether we can think of. Thomas Hopkins as, as, um, as actually having evolved as a group, there is this very strong evolution is predicated on the notion of the evolution of the individual of select selection of the individual, of the artist as an individual level. But, um, more and more, there’s been this idea that group evolution would work as well, that there is a sort of a, a selection around units of people. Is that, does that feed into your thinking?

Sarah Cavanagh: Well, I am a little cautious about waiting into a group evolution because I know a, you know, I interviewed a evolutionary biologist for the book and I’ve done some reading and evolution of evolutionary theory. And I know that as an enormously controversial topic, uh, that people who deeply understand evolution and spends. Their careers, studying it to get in these very heated battles about whether a group evolution is a thing or not. And as a psychologist, I, um, I feel like I might be kind of tromping around with a big boots, uh, trying to answer that question, but, um, I do, I do appreciate a lot of Haidt’s work on, um, on moral psychology and on, uh, some of these issues of polarization and.

You know, I do think in know we’re not going to talk a lot today about social media, but taking our ultra sociality online, I think has led to some group polarization and this tendency for people with different viewpoints, um, to kind of polarize on opposite ends of the spectrum. And, um, and I, I share some alarm at the degree of polarization. That has occurred. Um, and so I will, I would definitely agree with all of that and agree that there are group dynamics and that there’s a lot of groups psychology that, uh, we need to understand in order to understand our current polarized moment. Um, I don’t know if we need the concept of group evolution to get there. I think we could stay just in psychology and, and make some interesting conclusions.

Turi: That makes lots of sense and great answer. Sarah. I’d love to come back to this idea that you nodded to Emile Durkheim. Um, one of the very earliest sociologists describes us humans as homo duplex. How can we both be I and we, we and I, that homo duplex idea.

Sarah Cavanagh: Great. So the, I probably doesn’t need as much unpacking as the weed, but we certainly I’ll have this appreciation. I think this is our, our mode of thinking about the world. We tend to think that about ourselves as eyes, as individuals, as. Um, I’m Sarah, right? These are my motivations, is it? And this is how I differ from people around me.

And, and I think we think of ourselves as individuals, uh, and certainly, you know, um, from the States and the, in America, we love to think about ourselves as individuals. Um, but we also have the shared way of experiencing the world. And I think that we don’t spend enough time thinking about and talking about and understanding how our social others shape our experience of the world. And I love this idea of synchrony and I dig into it in the book and synchrony can occur at the level of facial expressions. So we do tend to mirror each other’s facial expressions. Uh, each other’s mannerisms. We tend to echo those. Uh, when we walk together, we tend to fall in step with each other and we structure parts of our society in ways that maximize the synchrony.

Right. Uh, we love to go to sporting events and, uh, and cheer together. Um, music. Is a way that, uh, nudges are we mode when we sing together, when we go to concerts, uh, things like that, um, there was a 1950s, I think, uh, era book about, um, marching in and as a soldier. And, uh, this elation that occurs when we line up our movements and our sounds with each other and. And we also do this at the level of emotion. And I think, you know, you, it’s just easy to see and crowd settings or protests when emotions seem to spread from one person to another. In the book, I quote Barbara Fredrickson, who’s a psychologist and she likes to say that it isn’t that even that my emotion of.

Affect your emotions, but rather we share emotions that the emotional States are recreated in different bodies and unite us and kind of synchronize us. There’s there’s also some really lovely neuroimaging work by Talia Wheatley and others. Showing that as we spend time and, uh, experiences together with certain people with friends, our brain activity tends to line up. We experience the world in similar ways. And so in all of these kind of physical ways in the moment we synchronize and we become one with our social others.

Turi: That’s a very beautiful idea in many ways. That’s a very beautiful idea though. Clearly there may be some slightly darker elements to it too, which we’ll come to in a bit. Um, but is this, is this just empathy? Is it something else it’s not just mirroring? Is it it’s it’s it’s is there an element of contagion?

Sarah Cavanagh: Absolutely. And, and that is actually the word that people use. Uh, at least the people in the emotion science realm, uh, talk about emotional contagion and there’s even some work. And it’s so neat that I have trouble believing it’s true. And so every, every six months I check the research literacy literature to see if someone has just confirmed it.

Um, but there’s some really compelling research on emotional contagion that, um, Measures, uh, how emotional contagion may spread through the air through the transmission of chemo signals. And so some really interesting work where they collect sweat pads, uh, from men. Cause they’re staying literally and, and, um, While they’re in States of fear or discussed, and then they have women because they’re more sensitive, uh, and they smell the sweat pads.

Um, and, and they see evidence of the recapitulation of that emotional state of the sweat pads. Uh, even though these women don’t meet these men, um, they’re separate participants. Collected data on separate days. Uh, and, but you could see in their facial expressions and in some of their eyes scanning behavior, for instance, uh, recapitulations of the men’s emotional state. And so again, I

Turi: so let me, let me just jump in and repeat that back to you to make sure I’ve understood men subjected to things which might discuss them or frighten them or give them anxiety. Um, that sweat is collected in sweat pads. Separately women who are more sensitive to smell, unfortunately for women, um, uh, uh, subjected to these, to these sweat pads. What’s interesting is not so much that they are able to recognize the emotion that created that sweat, but that they actually have that emotion themselves. So in the, in the, in the analysis of their facial features, they are replicating the disgust or fear or anxiety. That prompted the sweat that they’re smelling. That’s that’s contagion. That is not empathy.

Sarah Cavanagh: Yep, absolutely. And, uh, it’s wild and the they’ve replicated this finding numerous times, uh, using different scenarios. So sometimes the men, uh, the emotional States are evoked while they’re watching videos, um, that make them feel fear or disgust, but they’ve even done studies where they have men do things. Um, Like extreme sporting, like a walking on a high wire and things like that, uh, to, to make sure that they’re really feeling fearful and that they’re really creating, uh, emotional experience that is authentic. And that makes sense outside of the laboratory as well.

Turi: You call these chemos signals. Is that right? Do they, that there was a. The science of pheromones, which was all the way through my childhood and a little dubious. Does it smack a little bit of that? Is this why you have to check the research every

Sarah Cavanagh: Exactly. Exactly. And then they, and there is, um, the other reason I check to be sure is, um, well, two reasons, one, as you probably are aware, a lot of psychology research has kind of crashed and burned recently, um, because of its trouble replicating and it looks like it was just statistical error and things like that.

But secondly, They don’t really, if you read the papers, they don’t propose a convincing biological mechanism, right. They say, um, we know that pheromones exist in other species and that they affect behavior. Um, but human beings lack the same sensory organs. But some of these other animals have that pick up on these pheromones and they say, presumably, you know, this is something that’s transmitted, it’s a chemical that’s transmitted in the sweat, but you know, chemo signals is just a very broad term for the idea that there’s something being signaled by chemicals.

And, um, so I would like to see. More replications and then also a convincing biological mechanism and explanation for what exactly is being transmitted and how the receivers are, are, uh, decoding that information.

Turi: So a lot of questions still, but broadly what you’re articulating as a world in which emotion is. Contagious can transfer and be felt not in an empathetic way, but actually in a sort of subjective personal way. Um, and that we experience things in sync synchrony, you call it that, that the PO possibly old wives tale. Um, but which you referred to in the book about, um, women in groups eventually sinking their menstruation. For example, you think the same thing is, um, Do you think the same thing is possible to be done emotionally?

Sarah Cavanagh: Possibly, I’ll see, I’m you as a psychologist, they were trained to be skeptical of everything. Um, and to never state things in definitive.

Turi: but it’s interesting enough for you to feed it for you to build the beginnings of a thesis for your book around it, which is that there is this thing as a mind, not just as a metaphor, but actually as something that could potentially be evidenced.

Sarah Cavanagh: Yes.

Turi: So that’s the, a little bit of the science, and there’s lots more in your book, but let’s come to another concept that you bring up and I’ve brought up actually, as we’ve been speaking this notion of reality consensus, we’ve spoken here about the contagion of emotion, but what you also look at is how social and how socially constructed our understanding of what the world around us is.

Sarah Cavanagh: Yes. And here’s, here’s where things get scary for me. Um, because well, to take a step back, I guess, from the scariness, I think that it’s always been true that we have this consensus. Sense of reality. That’s because we are so ultra social and because we have culture, right? Uh, and we have cultural transmission of knowledge that you were handed by our social others by our parents, by our teachers, by our news media are handed these ideas about how the world works, how the world’s constructed, uh, what is real.

What is important and we rely upon that kind of web. Right. And I think that we have always done that. Um, but I think that there used to be more consensus to the consensus reality. And there are a lot of scholars, you know, this isn’t a work that I focus on in my research. And there are a lot of remarkable people who do, but they have been kind of sounding the alarm for some time, um, about. Conspiracy theories, uh, gaining steam about people, starting to question really basic elements of consensus reality. And I think, you know, a really easy example to use is the whole idea that the world might be flat, uh, that we didn’t land on the moon. Um, you know, my brother was, uh, dating someone and her daughter was 11 and she really believes that we didn’t.

Land on the moon. And she had all these YouTube video examples to pivot. Um, and I, I think that that sort of break down and what is real is frightening. And I think that we’re seeing that in this, um, not just rise of conspiracy theories and rise of the appeal of conspiracy theories, but also, um, something Michael Barkin calls, um, Uh, paranoia fusion and that the conspiracy theories are used. You know, you used to have conspiracy theories about aliens, about reptoids, about, you know, um, the Illuminati, but now they’re all conglomerating into this one big bird conspiracy. And that’s, that’s some pretty frightening stuff to my mind if we can’t even, uh, agree upon basic facts about how the world works.

Turi: So that’s the nasty side, um, which you’ve jumped in. Uh, jumped into feet, sort of both feet first. Um, and, and, and, and we will do, um, to talk to your kind of Uber conspiracy theory, this kind of super macro thing. Um, one of the very convincing arguments I’ve had for that just as an aside is actually that conspiracy theories are. Deeply problematic and deeply complex. You need to come up with a compelling and totalizing answer to everything that’s ever happened. Because of course the, one of the fundamental drives around conspiracy theories is a desire for order. So one of the, one of the, one of the key pieces here is that almost all conspiracy theories need to lay upon previous ones to give them the kind of foundations that they need.

And it turns out unfortunately, lots and lots of work has been done. This. Uh, on this conspiracy theories on YouTube, for example, almost all of them lead back. To Jews. And why? Because the earliest conspiracy theories in history were about the Jews. And so as conspiracy theories today about Q and M or pizza gate layer on previous ones around, you know, this third, the second shooter or the moon landings, they end up landing. They end up landing on the protocols of the elders of Zion and then all the other stories. So yes, there’s, there’s a, there’s a rich Canon in conspiracy theory here, which may explain why they go. So totalizing. But actually, can I come back to reality consensus or consensus reality as you, as you describe it because, um, it’s obviously true.

We all do make up a sort of sense of the world from the people around us. And when that shatters it’s deeply, deeply traumatizing at a psychological level, um, the person coming out as either a different sexuality. Or potentially a different gender in a very specific kind of community will feel that as a breach of reality, um, the, the, the, somebody coming out of a believing context, um, into agnosticism will fit reality will break for them. Those that’s at an individual level. So we do know that. We exist in these kinds of social norms constructed collectively. But what I liked so much about your description of it was via the importance of storytelling, the value that we place in storytelling to build these ideas of reality consensus.

Sarah Cavanagh: Yes. And, and I think you already hit on this. Um, and you know, we’re talking about the appeal of conspiracy theories being ordered. And I think that the appeal of storytelling is so powerful because it’s one of our. Basic ways of making sense of the universe. Right. Um, and we want to unite facts together to line them up. We like to see cause and effect. We like to see change over time stories, um, identify important actors. Uh, they have satisfying conclusions and how we teach our children is so largely through storytelling, how we communicate our social norms, our morals as a society. Through books and movies and television shows, uh, through fables. And it, it may be one of the basic units, um, psychologically of how we understand the world. And I think that because of that, that is one of the ways that we build this consensus reality is through the stories that we agree are important that have important messages, uh, and, and that are our understanding of the world.

Turi: There a particular neuro-psychology to stories themselves.

Sarah Cavanagh: That’s an interesting question. Uh, there’s certainly people studying storytelling at the level of the brain. Um, you know, it’s because they are so complex, they attend stories, tend to activate regions throughout the entire brain. Um, You know, the visual parts, activate the visual areas, the emotional parts, the emotional areas, et cetera. Um, but it seems to be more of a distributed network than a particular region of the brain.

Turi: So we, we build our consensus reality through storytelling, but in your book, you talk about the value of stories. In something absolutely fundamental in humans, which is theory of mind, the realization that other people have emotions as well. Can you thread this reality consensus, storytelling, and the fact that we are in a way socially constructed, even at an individual level.

Sarah Cavanagh: yes. Sure. And there’s some really great, you know, one of the joys of writing a book like this was that I could read so far outside my field. And so I read some really wonderful history books and literature books about, about just this, uh, phenomenon and the idea that. A lot of how we built our consensus reality is as we were just saying, the stories that we agree are important, uh, what we call our collective library, uh, one literature professor called it and, and he points out the fact that we, you don’t even need to actually have read the story, some of them, or seen a TV show to have access to the meaning of it. And so if you think about things like. Romeo and Juliet, even if you’ve never, you were never assigned Romeo and Juliet in high school, you know that story, right? It, you are exposed to it just through sort of a cultural osmosis, uh, because our culture has decided that’s an important story and enough human beings.

I’ve read it, that it enters our collective hive mind. There’s also some really interesting historical work, looking at the rise of kind of emotional letter based stories, um, and novels and how that may have changed our ability to empathize with people who are different from us. And. When you read enough when you read a number of stories and you know, you’re a man and you read stories from a woman’s perspective and, you know, you’re someone from upper-class and you hear someone from a lower class perspective or, you know, any social grouping that you can think of. And you see on the page and in the story that the person has the same anxieties of view as you the same experiences, you know, the same motivations or at least similar, uh, it allows for you to. Accomplish a really sophisticated, as you say, theory of mind to the understanding that other people have, people have minds and motivations, and they may be similar in certain ways, in different, in other ways. And this is a core. Thing that we need in order to be empathetic to other people, to not want other people, to experience pain, to not want other people to be neglected, um, to want to protect and help other people. And so narrative and storytelling may have gotten us a lot of the way there.

Turi: I love this idea that somehow storytelling performs a fundamental. Social function in teaching us at other that other people exist. It may also be the other way around that. Actually, the reason that we obsessed with stories is that the first story ever told actually prompts theory of mind, this extraordinary realization that other people have feelings like you do too.

Um, either which way, stories of wonderful, um, talking about connection, there are two beautiful ideas in your book and I’d like you to, um, uh, help us understand them a little bit better. The first is social baseline theory from Jim Cohen and the other is something that you’ve gestured to here already, which is neural synchrony, but all these things talk to this notion of the self as profoundly connected.

Sarah Cavanagh: Yes. Yeah. Uh, so social baseline theory is a theory of Jim cones, as you say. And he’s one of my favorite people ever, and, uh, fascinating work. And he, his body of work really spans a decade or more now, but it’s really early work. He. Took people, uh, in pairs and brought them into a neuroimaging setting and put one person in an FMRI scanner and, uh, threatened them with electric shock. And so he’s a really nice guy, uh, but he likes to joke about the spark and, um, so just, uh, Very small but uncomfortable electric shock on their ankle. And he measured their brain activation patterns when they were alone, when a stranger was holding their hand or when a spouse was holding their hand. And he finds that, of course, when you’re threatened with electric shock, the areas of the brain that are involved in threat perception and pain, light up, they activate blood flows to those regions.

And that was true. But he found that someone holding your hand reduced the level of threat responding at the level of the brain and the spouse holding your hand. Even more so, and the higher your ratings of marital satisfaction, the stronger the effect. And he’s replicated this finding, um, done it with not just spouses, but roommates dating partners. Um, he’s threatened to the partner was shock. He likes to joke that he’s threatened, threatens everyone with shock at some point. Um, and, but what he finds over and over again is that. Our nervous system reacts less to threat when our social others are present and providing emotional support. And this led him to his social baseline theory, which argues that, um, as we’ve been talking about throughout our conversation here, that the basic unit of the human being is not primarily individual and that we.

Our nervous systems evolved to expect other human beings to be there and not just to expect them to be there, but to rely on them as resources in times of threat. And. And an important corollary of that is if you separate human beings from their social others, if they’re social, others are not there under these times of threat, then you’re going to get more alarm responding at the level of the brain. And he points to this as an explanation for why we see these really strong effects study after study. Um, Dependent variable after dependent variable, showing that loneliness, um, affects health, almost every measure of health. That you can imagine. And he argues that this is the reason because when you perceive they are alone, your brain reacts more to threat.

And if it’s doing that every single time, you feel stressed. Every time you get bad news, every time something bad happens at work, then over time, that’s going to wear down all of your body systems. And so he argues for this, this deep need to attend to, uh, the social connections in our lives.

Turi: So just to put that back to you, um, it seemed to me as I read the experiment, So blindingly obvious is to not require even an experiment. Of course, you’re going to feel comforted if somebody you love and loves you, is that a hold your hand. But I think that the surprise, what I w what I understand is the surprise is the realization that actually, it’s almost as if the body sees not being with others as a negative, rather than the body being supported as a bonus. is, is that, is that right?

Sarah Cavanagh: Yes. Yes. And that’s, uh, the baseline part. Yes, but that was just very well articulated.

Turi: Well, just because I didn’t understand it to start with. So, um, if that doesn’t talk to the human as connected or potentially as more than a single self back to Emil dark times. Homo duplex. The, we, I don’t, I really don’t know what is, um, and, um, what I, this, but this brings us nicely into an idea that you’ve touched on previously, which is this one of neural synchrony. Can you unpack that a little bit for us?

Sarah Cavanagh: Yes. So that’s work that a lot of different people are doing. And, um, some of the work is at the level of FMRI. So looking at blood flow patterns in the brain, some of it is using EEG, which you put a cap of sensors on the person. Gulp and measure their brain waves rather than, uh, their brain activation patterns underneath. And what all of the work looks at is the degree to which there is literally synchrony at the level of the brain, the degree to which your brain waves predict my brainwaves and vice versa. Um, My favorite study of in this realm is by Talia Wheatley, who I mentioned earlier. And she studies people at Dartmouth, um, which is where she works and, and New Hampshire message in New Hampshire in the States.

And, um, she studies people who are a part of their, uh, MBA program. And because Dartmouth is in such a rural area and people come from all over for the MBA program. They tend to form really close social networks with each other. So unlike, you know, something, uh, somewhere like New York city, where you may already have an existing social network, if you choose to go to that program, uh, these people tend to come from far away and then there’s not a lot to do other than make friends where you’re at. And so it gives her this really unique setting in which to do her research. And she examines at the level of the brain, how. Friends and friends of friends, how similar their brains react to different stimuli. And so specifically she uses YouTube clips and, uh, she uses YouTube clips that she intentionally designs or chooses to, um, be sort of divisive for people to have different reactions, to things like humor, you know, and people have very different senses of humor, uh, political clips, which we know people have very different reactions to.

And she has these participants watch these YouTube clips while they’re in the FMRI scanner. And then she compares their brain activation patterns, but then she also has access to who’s friends with whom and, and the whole social network. So when she presents us at conferences, uh, she has one of those graphs up that you probably see all over Twitter and things with the little nodes and the lines in between them, you know, they like spider webs. Um, and so she knows exactly. How many people are connected to how many people and what she finds is that just using the brain data, she can predict those connections. So she can predict using how people’s brains react to these devices, new YouTube clips, uh, who was friends with whom. And she can even do it one level out who is friends of friends. Um, so you may not be friends with the third person out, uh, but your brain reacts similarly to YouTube clips. Um, wait,

Turi: So help me understand, because. There’s a chicken and egg problem

Sarah Cavanagh: one. Yeah.

Turi: because, because there’s some argument, which is, if you put a whole bunch of people together and the limit, any other friend, friending friend groups, and there really isn’t that many other people to talk to, it would make sense that, um, the people who like who have more Republican tendencies would get together with each other and the ones on the democratic side would do the same and people with similar sense of humor, you’d a thought they would sort themselves, but it feels like. Um, her experiment is not so much that people sort themselves into categories, but actually that they begin to their identities begin to bleed into each other. How does she prove that?

Sarah Cavanagh: Well, she that’s what she’s researching now. Um, so the early work, you know, was kind of cross-sectional in nature is what we call it. She just took a look at people’s brains and reactions at one point in time. Um, but now when she’s doing is longitudinal studies, which we’ll be able to tease out. Which of those things are at play. Um, my suspicion is it’s probably a little bit of both, uh, that we’re probably attracted to social partners who perceive the world like us, who think about the world, like us who find the same things funny. Right. Um, and that that’s part of interpersonal attraction. Um, but I would bet, and I don’t have the, I don’t know.

I’ll have to go look, I don’t know that these, uh, data are out there yet, but I would bet that there’s a little bit of the other effect as well. Uh, that the more you spend time with people, um, for all the reasons that we know that we talked about already, in terms of behavioral synchrony, facial synchrony, um, that you spend. The same experiences, same amount of time with someone over time that we grow more like each other, and that we begin to process the world more like each other. And I think that we’ve all felt this on a behavioral level. Um, if you’ve ever spent an unusual amount of time with one social partner and then found yourself echoing their mannerisms and other settings, like you can almost feel the version in your body.

It’s really almost kind of freakish. Um, and so. I don’t know, but my suspicion is it’s a little bit chicken and a little bit egg.

Turi: but what’s interesting here is you’re taking a neuro-psychological she’s taking a neuro-psychological line on this where many people would take as you just. You touched on the sort of behavioral, psychological line on this, all the work that you touch on in your book. And we’ve touched on elsewhere on the value of podcasts around political polarization or group psychology talks precisely to the social dynamics, which would.

Yeah, have people align much more closely around their ideas and actually radicalized those ideas as they go. So there’s the sort of three things going on here. One of the, the, the feature of sorting to the neuro-psychological bleeding of self between one entity and another, um, and three of this behavioral, psychological element. Sarah Cavanagh: I, I agree. And although I often, you know, people like brain science, I like brain science. Um, but. I think that often, and I see this oftentimes in the popular media and the popular media reports on neuroscience findings, um, there’s this level of like, Oh, you can see it in the brain. Right. But the brain is how we do behavior and it’s how we do psychology.

And so, um, I, I think that it isn’t really distinct, uh, it’s a mechanism, it’s a mechanism, one mechanism by which the behavioral may, um, have its effects. Uh, But it’s not terribly surprising that we see that at the level of the brain, because where else would we see it?

Turi: that kind of makes sense. so Sarah, we’ve looked in a number of different ways at, um, what’s wrong with thinking of the self purely in the first person, singular, rather than in that first person, plural, um, at a scientific level brain behavior, that beautiful combination of all of it. Um, we are in a sense, therefore we in scientific terms and there are also. I’m minded, lots of non Western cultures. You talked about the U S obsession with individualism, but there are lots of non-Western cultures that are much more comfortable with this idea of a collective then, um, Then our Judaeo Christian post God, uh, West I’m thinking of, um, Islamic culture, which for, for, for, for, for which the idea of the OMA, the community is an absolute foundation stone. Um, and in fact it turns out it was a, a Muslim. Uh, medical scholar, who first discovered the idea of contagion, because of course it made much more sense within the context of a collective to understand humans as a collective. Um, but also you have it in Confucianism, the idea of harmony and Confucianism, the idea of even the harmonious society in Chinese communism. Um, the West Europe particularly has a really tricky history when it comes to this idea of the, we. Of when we, when we move beyond our individualism. Into a collective, the history of the 19th and 20th century has made us deeply distrustful of that. The brutal 19th century, um, Wars of nationalism bleeding through, into the first world war.

And then of course, the far more. Well more or less, but the, the, the, the hideously dangerous weeds of fascism national socialism and Stalinism were very, very distrustful of the, we, can you help me? We understand what happens, what happened in those instances? When the, I, when the first person singular became the first person plural and why it was so dangerous.

Sarah Cavanagh: Well, I think, um, I’ll just say in the beginning here that, uh, kind of like the group evolution thing, I’m not a historian and some stepping outside my comfort zone a little bit here, but, um, in terms of the psychology of I and we, and the dangers of we, um, I think that the, our tendency toward in-groups is really, really strong. And there are horrifying examples of out-group hostility, many of which you just named. Um, and I think though in all of my interviews across different people from very different backgrounds, such as evolutionary biology and neuroscience and, uh, history that. Where we need to think is not to completely avoid the wi uh, because it has all of these powers that we talked about.

Um, we didn’t touch on yet, but there’s also quite a lot of evidence that most of happiness may reside more in the we part of us than the eye part of us, um, and shoring up our collective wellbeing rather than caring about our individual goals and aims and happiness. Um, But rather than is to be really careful about how we define in-groups and to be really wary about the restrictiveness and the size of our in-groups. Um, and that we need to, you know, an anthropologist that I interviewed, uh, Patrick Clarkin and talked about thresholds of inclusion, uh, which was a phrase that I just loved and. In, and he says, who do we include? Um, And so I think this concept of thresholds of inclusion could really help us out here. And I think that where we need to go is not to avoid our collective social cells, but, but to make sure that we have really expansive in groups, right. Uh, and that we are including human beings. And this is, this is where I get a little naive probably, but, um, Human beings as our in-group, rather than, you know, this nation or this ethnic group or this religion. And we can still identify, we can still find joy and, uh, sources of identity with our religions and our ethnicities and things like that. But I think we need to be sure that we also have these more expansive yeah. Grips.

Turi: Okay. How do we do this? So the tension, therefore that we’re talking about is that on the one hand, seeing ourselves as more than the first person, singular getting involved in our, in groups, understanding that our collective.

It is a critical part of who we are ourselves. It doesn’t just make us happier. It actually makes us live better and longer, all beautiful things. But of course, as soon as you start identifying a collective of which you are part it’s human nature to identify a collective, which is not part of that, what’s, what’s your truth. What’s the, how do we get over something that we’re seeing? All over the world, particularly in the U S but also across Europe. This radicalization of, of, of politics is polarization. How do we thread this needle?

Sarah Cavanagh: Well, I think that, and this is where am I get naive again, but, um, you, I see a strong power for looping us back to narrative and storytelling. Uh, the stories that we tell ourselves about what’s possible, uh, and about how we should proceed and about how the world works. I think that if. W that we can embrace a more nuanced, complex version of those things.

I think that some of the. Attributes of collective thinking that have gotten us in a lot of trouble, have to do with dichotomous thinking, you know, us versus them right versus wrong. Um, it has to do with, uh, cartoonish depictions of our political rivals, right. Uh, thinking and Twitter doesn’t help with us. Um, You know, really simplistic versions of, uh, the arguments and the people who are on the other side of the political spectrum. Uh, so to Condamine is cartoonish ness. And then also, you know, and there’s a growing body of work in psychology on dehumanization, which is a, you know, a term and a topic that’s been around for a long time, but there are a number of recent labs studying. Rises and dehumanization in the willingness of people to, um, describe their outgroup out-group members, including political out-groups as, you know, beasts or insects or, you know, these things. And all of these, I think are. Tendencies that make the worst of our collective science, uh, and that we need to do a better job in the media and a better job and my world of higher education, um, and maybe a secondary education at nudging people toward greater nuance for rejecting dichotomous thinking, uh, rejecting these cartoonish depictions and rejecting dehumanization.

And, um, I think that we’ve gotten all too willing to engage in these types of behaviors and each one of those contributes one aspect of a slippery slope that can get us in some pretty dark places.

Turi: Sarah, there are seven very appropriately named lessons from bees at the end of your book, um, which talked to some of the solutions that you think might work here. Can I, can I end with just one, I might ask you to tell me a little bit how you see fiction, how you see stories playing into this rehumanize nation of the out the outgroup.

Sarah Cavanagh: Yes. So I think that this is one of our most powerful ways of increasing nuance and, um, increasing complexity and all of that. And. I don’t know how to broadly apply it at the societal level, but I think that reading the stories of people who are different from you, and again, this could different from you as any other social group, right? Including, um, politically. And reading the experiences of other people, you know, getting under their skin literally and experiencing the world through their skin, um, understanding the trials and tribulations, um, and the differential types of experiences different people have in the world. Uh, I think can be a powerful way to increase nuance and complexity and, uh, empathy. No me too. My daughter keeps T she says that she doesn’t count my books cause they’re not fiction.

Turi: Sarah, what a lovely place to end. And, um, thank you so much for walking us through all these ideas.

Sarah Cavanagh: Oh, thank you. It’s been a pleasure.

This page was last edited on Wednesday, 3 Mar 2021 at 11:03 UTC