Groupiness

My last post (and others)  was about the virtue of thinking for oneself.

Now I must reconsider because of The Extended Mind:  the Power of Thinking Outside the Brain, by Annie Murphy Paul.  The major portion of this book is about the value of thinking together with other people.  She does not deal with the problems we encounter now with people overwhelmed by dominant group opinion and propaganda, particularly on social media, but that is not her purpose.  This was published in 2021 without mention of the pandemic, which is unusual. She is a science writer, so does not have any identified specialty or qualifications, but the work is thoroughly referenced.  However many of the studies “may indicate” or “suggest” conclusions, and some are unique or not peer-reviewed. I don’t regard this as an authoritative challenge to my conclusions, but it is credible enough to make me reconsider, which is the title of my blog.

“Groupiness” is actually the term Paul uses to describe a beneficial way to get people to think better by thinking together.  It includes such things as having a group do some physical things together before settling into a task:  exercising in a way that everyone does the same thing together, singing a song together, marching together, and so forth.  The idea is that physiological arousal together helps people tune into each other, increases mental alertness, and makes it easier to share.  Anyone who has done Daoist T’ai Chi as a group can appreciate the connectedness felt when doing those gracious moves together slowly; anyone who has marched (a major example in her book), perhaps not so much. 

I not only marched a lot in the Air Force, I was on a drill team. It’s true, as one of her sources recounts, that you feel the fact that everyone is sweating, paying close attention, careful to keep in step, and so on.  But a drill team requires deep training so that everyone is doing exactly the same thing at the same time, or, deliberately, several are doing a very different thing from the others, but at the same time and to the same beat.  I would almost say that I lost my mind rather than that I thought together with others; I would almost say that did everything but think.  I did not feel tuned in to the others but to the leader giving the command, or to a memorized and uncommanded routine.  When we had completed the routine, I was certainly ready to share anecdotes about how we had done, but not ready to think. But perhaps I am the exception.

Paul also suggests that we need to pay more attention to our body inside, called interoception.  Think the well-known mindfulness exercise of paying attention to how our feet feel, our ankles, legs, etc., till we have scanned the body.  She says doing this makes it possible to tune into our emotions, which are the values we assign to the various signals from our bodies.  This is called “cognitive reappraisal,” a process in which we become aware of a body signal, say, sweating and increased heartbeat, and assign a value to it–the result of exercise or nervousness, for example.  Some therapists claim that they can, when first sitting with a client, use their interoception to help them tune in to the emotions and feelings of the client before speaking with them.  Because emotions precede conscious thought, this becomes a way of extending their minds, and thinking better.

In addition to using groupiness, there is nature.  We probably have all read articles about the benefits of being out in nature, taking a “soft look” around, benefiting from our evolutionary preference for being out in it, being comforted by the fractals in leaves and other things, though we may not actually perceive them.  This helps us to think better, if not while we’re out in nature, then later when we set down to a task.  Associated with this may be exercise:  ambling out in nature can be a great time to think through things quite deliberately; if we are ambling with someone with whom we are discussing a task or problem, the benefit increases.  If we get much beyond an amble, our walking becomes more deliberate and more of our thought is given over to that, if only to be sure of the safety of the path.  Thinking in nature may also be more creative because our presence in nature relaxes us.

On the other hand, walls are important because they can bring privacy.  Paul cites studies that conclude that creativity actually declines in open offices, because people are reluctant to share fully with others – they might not want their ideas heard by certain other people.  If they can do some of their thinking alone, particularly when experimenting on something, or with a chosen few whom they trust, their thinking is expanded without risk, and they can, once surer of their ideas, share more prepared information with a broader audience.

Paul also suggests larger screens as tools to improve thinking, particularly those large enough to enable seeing out of the corner of our eyes, i.e., seeing beyond where our sight (and thought) are concentrated; multiple screens; and combining gestures/haptics with peripheral vision, as in Matrix, to use the body as well to extend our thinking.

Likewise, making field notes in science projects gives us an extra way to rethink (reconsider, if you will) when we go back to the notes and try to ask questions of them to guide further thinking.  Students benefit from drawing the basic tools they use as a way of really seeing them. This is particularly useful for architects, draftsmen, and designers, who get “backtalk” from their drawings.  Even better with models.

“Development of intelligent thinking is fundamentally a social process,” Paul writes. 

Instruction with additional time for students to discuss among themselves, improves thinking.  By extension (and in my own experience) preparing to teach is an even more social process because we are trying to help people understand what we are saying and demonstrating.  The teacher engages in social thought even before meeting the class.  Our social memories stay with us better than do our factual memories, which partly explains how social engagement improves learning, because it improves access to memory.

Paul says that people are inherently ready to teach, explain, or persuade, and also to examine carefully what others try to impart to us.  But we do not as closely examine what we have taught ourselves, readily accepting our own authority to explain the world around us.  This is what leads to confirmation bias.  We benefit most from trying to persuade people who disagree with us, because conflict urges us to know more.

Paul lists four qualities of “groupiness”:  people should learn together (in person), train together, feel together (synchronicy), and engage in rituals together.

I don’t want to argue with Paul about whether we “think” better in groups.  My own experience agrees that I benefit from discussions with a group of people with differing opinions, but I also need time afterwards to reconsider their comments and my own ideas. I certainly know that preparing to teach classes sharpens my thought and my memory, and that I benefit ever more from the discussion in class – it helps me understand what other people mean by certain terms.  Particularly if I get to hear the life story that led them to their current point of view, and share mine with them, I learn much intuitively that is never identified explicitly, but I know it is there somewhere inside me now. The shear beauty of internalizing it changes me and adds  something to my very self. I don’t know that I “think” better as a result; rather I sense a greater wisdom in my soul, a broader lens through which to look at life.

In my childhood I attended a private, conservative religious school where almost everything I learned was by rote and by catechism.  Scriptural “proof texts” were memorized. But in a different denomination in later years I was taught by a minister whose Th.D. was from Tübingen, and who went on to be the president of Princeton Theological Seminary.  He wanted us to know what we believed and why, and what we didn’t believe and why.  We learned in a peer group, but were not forced to regurgitate what we had been told.  To be approved for confirmation, each of us was interviewed alone by the elders.  So in the final analysis, I alone was responsible for speaking my beliefs.  That’s the way it should be.

In my undergraduate and graduate work, I was expected to know things but to think independently, to know why I agreed and disagreed.  In Air Force intelligence I was expected to know my stuff, but to name my own conclusions and to explain and defend them under questioning by the highest ranking officers.  When I was required by senior staff to deliver briefings prepared by someone else, everyone knew that whoever I was briefing was going to ask at the end, “Brownie, what do you think?”  If senior staff saw that I wasn’t buying into their conclusions, they used one of their own to brief.  And so I learned that many could be trained by the same system, taught to analyze things the same way, and yet come to profoundly different conclusions. I saw it was important to respect those of different opinions, to accept the humility of knowing that one or all of us might be wrong, and to not give in to higher rank.  I wish everyone could learn those things.

I know personally that some of what Paul writes about – “groupiness” – is beneficial, and I’m fine with that.  But ultimately it is what I think, what I think, and why, after due consideration and reconsideration, that is important.

Sharing concerns about thinking in groups is Yascha Mounk’s The Great Experiment:  Why Diverse Democracies Fall Apart and How They Can Endure.  Mounk says that the great threat to diverse democracies is “groupishness,” the tendency for people of the same ethnic background, or religion, or other specific cultural quality, to want to be among themselves without melting into the pot.  Mounk’s primary county of interest in this discussion is the U.S., although he cites many other diverse democracies except Canada.  He seems totally unaware of Canada’s two founding communities, nor its multiculturalism, nor its radical failure regarding indigenous peoples, nor its history of multi-party democracy.  He and his readers are the more impoverished for this.

Mounk, Francis Fukuyama (Liberalism and Its Discontents), and others point out this basic flaw in many forms of liberalism, that its purveyors want to discount the fact and importance of community identity in favour of more heterogenious societies.  But Mounk would say that American groupishness is likely to oppress those not fitting in with the majority, and so poses the question as to whether people can be distinct without being oppressive about it (as illustrated sometimes in Quebec francophone desire for a distinct society that makes promoting French language, and culture, more important that some individual rights, and that seeks to laicize society so that religious symbols cannot be worn on the job by public employees).

Mounk dismisses the metaphors of melting pot and salad plate (each ingredient is obviously different from the others, but may be served together to compose a salad).  He offers instead a public park, where different groups can be in the same place at the same time but do different things, e.g., barbecue, hold a festival, play tennis and softball, etc.

The metaphor appeals to me because of personal experience.  My family and I were picnicking at a large park in Toronto, on a very busy day.  Toronto is highly multicultural, so many different groups being there at the same time, doing their own thing, waiting in the same lines for the washroom, listening to children screaming in joy and crying in complaint, dodging someone else’s frisbee, and so forth, is pretty normal.  At one point I became aware of a child’s wail, and I soon discerned that he was a toddler standing alone near an open sprinkler.  I watched for an adult to run to the rescue but there was no one.  Leary of being a male standing next to a crying child I did not want to draw close, but I did want to stand guard.  Several other guys had the same idea so there was soon a circle of us standing around the child, not getting close, waiting for a parent.  There were polic patrolling on bicycles, so one left to call him to the location, and the cop arrived soon, but so did the mother, from appearances.  We left it to the cop to establish identities, and I never did learn why that child was alone so long.

But what I liked was that several of us of visibly different, but perhaps all locally-born Canadians, became of the same protective mind at the same time, in a public park, and only after waiting for the mother, called upon the police.  We were united in our concern for a crying child, and cautious about concluding that the parent might be neglectful.  And then we simply returned to what we had been doing and the day moved on.

You see why I like the metaphor of the park.  Groupishness may be an accurate description of how we associate, but it does not mean that we cannot identify common concerns and interest in others’ welfare, and it doesn’t connote disrespect for different people.  It is not in itself a solution, but it is a good model to keep in mind.

But it’s nothing like Paul’s groupiness.  It leaves more room for independent thought, and informed consent (the other theme of my posts).

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