Cambridge makes Hay

hay town with bunting

Picture credit: Billie Charity

Picture credit: Billie Charity

From geopolitical instability and climate change to the next pandemic, we urgently need to harness the power of as many brains as possible to help solve the world’s most pressing problems. A new book explores the power of joined-up thinking and how different brains can work in synchronicity, as individuals learn from one another and build consensus, and as emotions, moral values or ideas hop from brain to brain. 

The book, Joined up Thinking, by Dr Hannah Critchlow will form the basis of her talk at this year’s Hay Festival on 29 May. Hannah is one of several Cambridge academics speaking on issues ranging from misinformation and diversity in science to pollution, earthquake recovery and climate action as part of the Cambridge Series. 

Hay Festival

Picture credit: Adam Tatton-Reid

Picture credit: Adam Tatton-Reid

The Hay Festival is one of the world’s most prestigious literary festivals and is held annually in a tented village just outside the picturesque town of Hay-on-Wye in Wales. It also has spin-out events across the globe, from Bogota to Segovia. Now in its 15th year, the Cambridge Series launched in 2008 in advance of the University’s 800th anniversary. Speakers have included Sir John Gurdon, Professor Martin Rees, Dame Gillian Beer, Dame Fiona Reynolds and Professor Dame Athene Donald.

Hannah Critchlow

Dr Critchlow, who has become a bestselling author, broadcaster and neuroscience presenter since appearing at Hay, is a Hay regular, attracting large audiences for her talks on developments in neuroscience. 

Her new book has been attracting a lot of attention from a broad range of people, including policymakers who are keen to learn how to harness the collective power of the human brain. She states: “There are a number of studies demonstrating how brain diversity helps create a greater pool of cognitive resources to help improve problem-solving and innovation. Time and time again we see how our individual differences can underpin our species’ collective success.”

joined-up thinking book cover

Dr Critchlow says her favourite examples of joined-up intelligence include the Genome Project (sequencing the DNA code and reading our genes), Proteomics (understanding the role of proteins in the body), Connectomics (how our nerve cells connect in our brain and body) and more recently the Plasticitome (how these connections change as we learn from the environment). 

It’s not just about science, however. The benefits of joined-up thinking are multifaceted. Dr Critchlow says studies show, for example, how healing from anxiety and distress can be a collective endeavour.

“These massive subjects involve scientists based across the world, working fastidiously, slowly chipping away at problems, collectively building up a base of knowledge that helps to evolve our understanding of us. The results can eventually give rise to incredible medical breakthroughs but also a shift in our perception of our place in the world and how we relate to others, including other species.” Dr Hannah Critchlow

Dame Athene Donald

Other Cambridge Series speakers include Dame Athene Donald, Professor of Experimental Physics, who will speak about her new book, Not Just for the Boys: Why We Need More Women in Science.  The book looks back at how society has historically excluded women from the scientific sphere and discourse, what progress has been made, and how more is still needed.

Drawing on evidence of the systemic disadvantages women operate under, from the developing science of how our brains are - and more importantly aren’t - gendered, to social science evidence around attitudes towards girls and women doing science, it also discusses how science is done in practice, in order to dispel common myths: for example, the perception that science is not creative, or that it is carried out by a lone genius in an ivory tower, myths which can be very off-putting to many sections of the population. Its main argument, however, is the moral and business case for greater diversity in modern research, the better to improve science and tackle the great challenges we face today.

Book cover - Not just for the boys

Another speaker is Sander van der Linden [below], Professor of Social Psychology in Society, who will talk about his new book Foolproof: Why We Fall for Misinformation & How to Build Immunity, which looks at the psychology behind misinformation and shows us how we can inoculate ourselves and others against its spread, discern fact from fiction and push back against methods of mass manipulation.

Sander van der Linden

Van der Linden is one of the world’s most cited social scientists and is often dubbed Cambridge’s ‘Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher’.  He argues that misinformation acts much like a virus, hijacking our thoughts, altering our basic perceptions of the world and even infiltrating our memories of events. It also spreads like a virus, but, according to van der Linden’s research, immunity is possible through the new science of ‘prebunking’, i.e. pre-emptively neutralising the techniques of misinformation.

Foolproof book jacket

Professor Jennifer Gabrys [pictured below], Chair in Media, Culture and Environment in the Department of Sociology, will also be speaking about her book, Citizens of Worlds, the first thorough study of the increasingly widespread use of digital technologies to monitor and respond to air pollution.

Professor Jennifer Gabrys

Drawing on data from the Citizen Sense research group, Professor Gabrys argues that citizen-oriented technologies promise positive change but collide with entrenched and inequitable power structures. She explains that how people respond to, care for, and struggle to transform environmental conditions informs the political subjects and collectives they become. 

Book cover - Citizens of Worlds

A number of other Cambridge academics will be at Hay this year. Professor David Runciman and Professor Helen Thompson will be in conversation with David Miliband, CEO of the International Rescue Committee and former UK Foreign Secretary, to discuss the American century – and whether we’re still living in it.

Professor Emily Shuckburgh

Professor Emily Shuckburgh [above], director of Cambridge Zero, will join environmentalist Tony Juniper to launch an urgent call to action on climate change. And Emily So [below], Professor of Architectural Engineering and Director of the Cambridge University Centre for Risk in the Built Environment, will be speaking about the research being carried out by Turkish teams and other structural engineers with the aim of learning lessons from the February earthquake and about ways to improve the design of buildings and the construction process to make them more resilient.

Professor Emily So

*The Hay Festival runs from 25th May to 4th June. More information here.