The Royal Society of Arts (RSA) has begun a Social Brain Project which intends challenging the idea that we are rational, isolated individuals acting autonomously. Bringing together insights from neuroscience and the behavioural sciences the project will research what difference it makes to assume that we are social inter-dependent beings for a broad range of social provision. This project appears to be making an interesting contribution to thinking about social selves and draws on the work of Antonio Damasio, amongst others. Damasio’s research demonstrates that emotions play a significant part in our cognitive processes.
These insights will already be familiar to readers of this and other blogs which have taken up the work of GH Mead, Norbert Elias, Pierre Bourdieu and others, whose writings are based on the idea of social selves, the ‘we’ of society being made up of interdependent ‘I’s.
Although the project is important, the more voices there are arguing for the centrality of the social the better, as it stands at the the moment however the thinking behind the project seems still insufficiently social to lead to any profound conclusions. The project rubric tends towards suggesting that the brain is somehow a disembodied organ which is pro-social and obliges us to act ‘irrationally’ as well as rationally. In searching for an alternative decision-making ‘model’ to replace an assumed model of rational calculation there seems to be an instrumental suggestion that somehow we can ‘harness’ the ‘computational’ power of the social brain to produce better results. The social brain becomes another tool in the rationalist toolbox.
It is pleasing that decades of philosophical and sociological thought is now being affirmed by brain research, particularly if it challenges the dominant ways of conceiving of running public services. However, coming at the question from the perspective of the brain as some kind of disembodied organ would not do justice to the themes of mind, self, power, identity, ideology, anxiety, and shame that for us also accompany the concept of humans as profoundly social beings. The radical implications of accepting the idea of a social brain is that there is nothing to harness: we are caught up in social processes of which we are part, with no Archimedean point to find, nowhere to stand beyond what is happening to us. It is not just our brain, but our very sense of ourselves that arises in our daily interactions with others.
It is of course worth investigating what we can learn about working together and taking a more social perspective on how we understand what we are part of and it is important to follow the results of the project with an open mind. But it is also important to be clear about some of the reductive premises from which the project seems to spring. The project is social, but not nearly social enough.