#CamFest Speaker Spotlight

Dr Hannah Critchlow

Neuroscientist Hannah Critchlow and award-winning science writer David Robson will be in conversation about Dr Critchlow’s latest book, Joined up thinking, which illuminates the new science of collective intelligence on 29th March, 8-9pm.

Why does your research matter?

Research of all sorts matters, but neuroscience matters in particular because it helps us to appreciate why we behave as we do and what we can do to make better use of our brain power, to make better decisions, and how these effects can ripple out to affect our relationships and the lives of future generations.

Have you been surprised by the public interest in neuroscience in terms of responses to your books and appearances at events?

We are living during the era of the brain - incredible technological developments allow us to peer into the mind as never before - to see thoughts, ideas and emotions arise in a living moving conscious mammal. We can see the architecture and activity of the brain change and analyse how this correlates with behaviour. We are also starting to see how different brains work in synchronicity, as individuals learn from one another and build consensus, as emotions, moral values or ideas, hop from brain to brain. It’s exciting and the implications are enormous.

Give us an example of joined-up intelligence in action.

My favourite examples of joined up intelligence in action are in the ‘omics: 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). 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.

Do you think the human brain will be outpaced by machines and will that serve to emphasise the things only the human brain can currently do?

Computers are supremely skilled at the many tasks we set them. The latest Artificial Intelligence systems can process, integrate and build on information far more rapidly and accurately than humans. But, as I discuss in Joined up Thinking, social and emotional intelligence are the skillsets that underpin successful collaboration, and they are beyond the current capacities of artificial intelligent machines.

How important is diversity of viewpoints when it comes to addressing complex global challenges?

There is no doubt that as a species WE ARE capable of great things. But we are currently facing a myriad of existential crises, from geopolitical instability, the threats of climate change, overpopulation, food scarcity and the next pandemic. We urgently need ALL brains on deck to help solve these problems.

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.

What was the most surprising thing that you discovered about the brain as a result of writing the book?

Cutting-edge research will revolutionise how we think about intelligence, but some of the most exciting findings are less futuristic and much closer to home - the studies that show how healing from anxiety and distress can be a collective endeavour, for example, or how essential it is to break down dominance dynamics so that good ideas can emerge and seed themselves in a group. 

When it comes to joined up thinking how important is face to face social interaction or does it not matter?

Collective intelligence emerges and flourishes in certain conditions, including social connection, preferably real-world contact. There is a heap of data from long before the pandemic to support the assertion that we all benefit from interaction with others; that in fact, our most fundamental skills depend on it. Human beings are social animals.