Thinking is a group activity


Originally published at:


Memetics reinforces this point. Knowledge is inherently “viral”. It wants to be spread, worked out between multiple individuals together or in competition, until the best iterations of that idea turn up. It also balances out any biases or blindspots one person has if you have multiple individuals working on it.


I seem to have read somewhere recently that while cats and dogs have similar order of magnitude number of neurones, dogs have far more of the cortex dedicated to social behaviour, cats far more to lone hunting. The result is that cats are more efficient predators, but dogs don’t need to be because they have learned to co-operate with people.


That’s only part of the illusion. A “person” is also a “group”, as well as a system, and a network of systems. Organisms are understood (by some) to be not individual, but to be fuzzy aggregates. Being is (a) distributed process(es).


After reading reviews and criticisms of this book, some of the comments make me wonder if it is worth reading. What we learn/know is a combination of shared knowledge and unique experience. Does collaboration help us to exceed individual capabilities? Sure. However, there are cases where an individual’s unique experience exceeds the achievements of a group. With a title that says “We Never Think Alone,” it’s not clear that the authors are looking at both scenarios.


A point of distinction that might be made is that an individual’s unique experience, no matter how exceptional, isn’t much use to anyone until that experience is integrated with the group. That’s basically what education is: individual experiences, shared with the group. It’s also, on a smaller scale, what storytelling is.


I’m interested in what the group has to say about this…


I believe when Wittgenstein argued the impossibility of a private language, he was also arguing that cognition has a necessary social component.



How much does everyone, regardless of their politics, benefit from things like language, agriculture, math? And how can benefiting from those things be converted into a willingness to pay for them, by supporting society? I wonder.


(opens cat food)

Hypothesis disproven.


I’m gonna neitpick here! Because this isn’t true. Thinking is done by individuals. Creativity or construction is done by communities. Without telepathy, or a Borgesque hivemind, thinking is still a solo process, informed by outside input.

I know I’m being picky, but I kind of suspect this was poorly phrased on purpose to make a fairly well known idea seem more novel than it is.


I’d say ideas are viral moreso than knowledge. Ideas that aren’t true, like vaccinations being dangerous, or chemicals being inherently bad, spread at least as well as true ones. In these cases the fact that it’s being spread to a group doesn’t balance out the biases or blindspots that one person has, because enough people share the same blindspots for bad ideas to live on. Some knowledge, meanwhile, doesn’t spread very far because it’s not interesting, or because a significant amount of people are all biased against it in the same, or similar, ways.

So, to expand on what you’ve said (which I think is in the spirit of this article, and, to a large degree, of your post) ideas are viral. That’s why it’s important to have a healthy immune system, in the form of skepticism and evidence based research, to filter out the bad ones. Which in itself means trying to spread the idea that skepticism and evidence based research are good things.


Thinking is a group activity

Yes, but illegal in the USA.


First we would need to agree upon what constitutes an “individual”, and I find that many use the term without much thought. There appears to be a consensus that one individual == one organism, as a long-held metric. But I think that this is based mostly upon 2000+ year old conceptuality.

  • Organisms have been known to be factually dividable and yet remain alive for more than a century.
  • A person maintains “the same” feeling of self even when they are a combination of transplanted organs.
  • Most DNA in a human body is bacterial rather than hominid.
  • Even human cells incorporate a colony structure of symbiotic organelles.
  • The conscious unity of a human memory and cognition is a cover for numerous interdependent agents.

So, despite its common-sense connotation, I think that people - on a personal and societal level - would really benefit from re-thinking what constitutes the basic atom of self-hood. The boundaries are always in flux. Not unlike how a river has a name which is defined more by its circumstances than its ever-changing content of water.


I think it’s fairly clear from the context of this article that the operational definition of “individual” that we’re using here is the commonly held “one live, conscious homo sapiens = one individual.” In fact, I think if you were to do a find/replace command to replace “individual” with “single homo sapiens” the meaning of the article wouldn’t be changed all that much.

So if you wanna argue that an individual is a smaller unit than a single homo-sapiens, that’s fine. But my point that there’s 1 homo sapiens involved in thought is only really changed to <=1 homo sapiens involves in thought. And given that my overall point was that it’s certainly not > 1 homo sapiens… well that distinction doesn’t add any real clarity.

Or, if you want to say that an individual is still one homo sapiens, but we should think of it as a broad term for an entity of many, or varying parts, as per your river example, that’s fine too, but, again, doesn’t change or add much here.

Basically what I’m saying is “what should the operational definition of an individual be” is a fine discussion to have, but maybe it should be had in another thread, as for this thread wither you call it an “individual” a “homo sapiens” or a “asdfasfd” doesn’t really matter much, as long as we know what it’s supposed to mean.


I would say that knowledge is still viral, perhaps in a slightly different mindset than ideas, but for example… i love sharing random knowledge with those around me and i get a lot of joy from it. And i believe that such a mechanism, the compulsion to share what you know, to be an important process for a group (not just humans). There are cases of other animals learning a new behavior like using a tool or a novel hunting technique and sharing it with their pack.


Isn’t illegal yet, just severely frowned upon the past few hundred years.


I wouldn’t really disagree there! I guess the distinction I wanted to make was between actual knowledge and “knowledge.” The same mechanism by which you spread knowledge is also used to spread… I guess I’d call it false knowledge?

By way of an example, I had a college professor who, also loving to share random knowledge, would tell his students a little story about how the behaviorist psychologist, John Watson, was kicked out of a university for doing some experiments on human sexuality… with himself as one of the participants. While it may be fair to say that Watson slept around, however, there’s little to no evidence that he collected data while he did it.

It’s spread the same way as real knowledge. Namely, someone thinks it’s knowledge and passes it on. But it’s not really knowledge, because it isn’t true. And that’s just one example. The entire show QI is basically “Things that get passed on as knowledge, but aren’t true.” Same thing with anti-vaccination people. They pass on the idea because they think it’s true. To them it is knowledge. It’s my belief that most people who don’t vaccinate, for example, aren’t the normal anti-vaccination people you find online… they’re just people to whom someone once said “Hey, did you hear this thing about vaccines?” the way you or I might repeat any random fact.

Hence why some amount of skepticism is important. The entire reason I know why the Watson thing isn’t true is because I wanted to pass it on to someone else… but I googled it first, just in case. I honestly thought it was true up until that point. I mean, a guy with a doctorate in psychology told me that.


Sure, it would be easier if we could assume a working definition from the outset. But “parts” of an individual do not maintain distinct identities, that’s why it is called… individual. If the purpose of the discussion is to establish where the boundaries of cognition exist, I think it is entirely relevant. The very notion of “thinking as group activity” would not seem so odd, and would benefit from more perspective, if people were willing to consider updating their frame of reference. The evidence suggests to me that there is no unified personality at all, the sense-of-self is an emergent property which serves a social function, even if it does not exist anywhere.

Especially in terms of this topic, starting from the presumption that we both know and agree what a conscious agent is, is literally a homunculus argument. That reduces ambiguity, but isn’t accurate enough to provide a model which can be audited for clarity.