Thursday, May 19, 2022

"Together We're A Genius"

"Together we're a genius." ~dialog from Six Feet Under

When neuroscientists or philosophers talk about "self-awareness," they are, generally speaking, referring to our ability to observe and accurately identify our thoughts, feelings and impulses, and determine whether they are grounded in reality or not. With the possible exception of those few who dedicate their lives to study, discipline, and meditation, most of us, most of the time, go about our business on autopilot, reacting, emoting, and doing. Indeed, the people who study these things tell us that those windows of self-awareness during which we can hold a thought or work out a problem, tends to be open on average for seven seconds.

However, in their book The Dawn of Everything, anthropologist David Graeber and archeologist David Wengrow write:

"(T)he great exception to this is when we're talking to someone else. In conversation, we can hold thoughts and reflect on problems sometimes for hours on end. This is of course why so often, even if we're trying to figure something out by ourselves, we imagine arguing with or explaining it to someone else. Human thought is inherently dialogic . . . Humans are only fully self-conscious when arguing with one another, trying to swap each other's views, or working out a common problem."

This is why, the Davids argue, that ancient philosophers tended to write their works in the form of dialogs (e.g., Plato). Many of our earliest novels were epistolary (e.g., Samuel Richardson), which is to say written in the form of the characters writing letters to one another. And speaking from personal experience, every one of the thousands of posts I've written here have started as internal dialog, one part of myself proposing ideas, while another part tries to poke holes in those ideas. It's the same dynamic that sets science apart from pseudo-science: theories aren't proposed as a way to answer questions, but rather as invitations to other scientists to find flaws in the theory by way of improving or disproving them.

In other words, alone, we are poor thinkers, but together, in dialog, we are geniuses. It's only together, while bouncing thoughts, ideas, and feelings off of one another that we, as a species, are truly capable of the sustained self-awareness required for deep, productive, creative thought. 

We need one another to think. What if this idea were embedded in our schools? This would mean, of course, that our obsession with individual achievement, like grades and test scores, would become secondary to dialog and collaboration. Our schools would be places where sharing your answers with others was not considered "cheating," but rather the highest form of intelligence. They would be places, like the real world, in which collections of humans come together to solve problems, rather than the way we currently do it in schools, which is to compel each child to struggle, alone, in their self-contained silos, places where self-awareness only exists in seven second increments. 

This is why I say that when children are at play, they are learning at full-capacity. Play is where children are in dialog with one another, cooperating, debating, bickering, and thinking. Play is the sustained dialog of childhood. Indeed, I would assert that those who continue to play into adulthood are the people we label as geniuses, not because their individual brains are any better, but because they have learned the secret of self-awareness which is that together that we are geniuses.


So much of the speaking we do with children is not dialog, but rather an adult-imposed reality created from directives and questions, language that tends to close down thinking. If you're interested in learning more about alternatives to commands, questions, punishments, and rewards, please consider registering for my 6-part course The Technology of Speaking With Children So They Can ThinkIn this limited registration course we will explore how the way we speak with children creates an environment in which cooperation and peacefulness are the norm, where children take the initiative, solve their own problems, and, most importantly, think for themselves. Click here for more information and to register.

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