Sunday, 11 December 2011

Cognitive aliens

Last week I introduced and led another Conversation Dinner at the School of Life in London and was again touched and surprised at the capacity of a sample of strangers - admittedly a self-selecting sample - to conduct a pleasant, informed conversation with each other. All the more so as I've been toying with the sobering thought lately how often we are simply cognitive aliens who talk different languages to each other while happening by accident to live on the same planet and look vaguely alike. 'Cognitive alien' is the term used by the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget to describe children up to (I think) the age of seven. Piaget argues that there is no point trying to converse with a young child in the way that we would with an older child or adult: they are simply aliens who inhabit an entirely different mental universe to us. It's not their fault they won't do as they're told; their brains are just wired differently. 
The only problem with this theory is that I often think it is also true about adults: they might as well be speaking in tongues for all the sense they make to each other. There seems to be an assumption in current affairs TV and radio that talk and discussion are a public good in themselves, but I wonder how much good the debate about Europe, the economy, the public and private sector and so on actually does, given that it simply seems to entrench people even further in their own versions of reality. Any author will be familiar with this feeling: people just get the wrong end of the stick about what you have written, or maybe you have failed to make it clear - but the tone and voice underlying your words (and sometimes even, although this is usually the least important thing, the content) has simply bounced off them as if you were two surly magnets repelling each other. 'A joke isn’t a joke if it has to be explained, let alone justified,' Christopher Hitchens wrote in Vanity Fair in 1994, 'and the same goes for many sorts of allusion, nuance, and affect – the invisible bits of writing and conversation that actually make it possible.' More often, what you have written is simply ignored: the writer Gilbert Adair, who died last week, liked to refer to himself as 'unread Adair'.

Still we remain what David Attenborough, in the last episode of Life on Earth, called the 'compulsive communicators'. It's just something we do and can't help doing, and sometimes our misunderstandings and misreadings of each other can be creative, funny and life-enhancing. So thanks to everyone who came to the Conversation Dinner for reminding me that, however hard it is, we shouldn't give up on trying to converse with other.

Mundane quote for the day: Habit, n. A shackle for the free. - Ambrose Bierce


  1. Thanks Joe, your post very much chimes with my experience recently where I have started a podcast where I talk to artists, arts officers, and commentators in debates about the arts sector, funding, creativity. Looking to document the artistic practice in this part of the world in the run up to the Olympics and the capital investment into the cultural Olympiad. Like you I’ve been touched and surprised at the capacity of strangers to conduct an informed conversation with each other.

    I have been pleasantly surprised at how open some people have been in willing to share and converse fairly openly. But was surprised at how artists have been very guarded with their criticisms as to how curators might take them the wrong way. This has borne out with some arts administrators commenting on comments in conversations, which I am sure were not aimed at them. It’s interesting how much we live in our personally space, our personal bubble, and feel the world resolves around us.

    The conversations have been enlightening and have really made me appreciate the range of activities in the area, the people, the interactions, and my place within this. It has been hearting to hear how these podcasts have opened up new connections, new conversations between people and between arts groups.

    Enthusiastically second the motion that we shouldn't give up on trying to converse with other. No matter how much misunderstandings might get in the way.

    More about this work at;