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Christmas letter 2020

The human species has a spectacular ability for collaboration. We have the capability for friendship, the will to cooperate with strangers and individuals outside our own inner circle, we have intricate brain mechanisms for understanding the world from another person’s perspective, for deeply sharing our emotions, and an expansive need for the attention and acceptance of others. You could say that, compared to other animals on this planet, we are hyper-social.

Another skill that sets us apart is our capacity for learning. During our relatively short existence, we have created vast amounts of understanding about the world and ourselves, and a self-correcting scientific method for continuously improving this understanding, for learning on a species-wide scale.

Why are we like this? It is believed that these two characteristics, collaboration and learning, have evolved out of necessity, that they have been essential for survival. Researchers have aptly described it: Compared to the other big predators on this planet, we are small, slow and weak. Without speed and brute force, we have needed our brains, and we have needed each other.

“The capabilities for collaboration and learning
have been interlinked and accelerated the development
of each other.”

Throughout human history, the capabilities for collaboration and learning have also been interlinked and accelerated the development of each other.

For instance, it is believed that the emergence of romantic love and pair-bonding in our species created an optimal environment for the evolution of our current over-sized and long-developing brains. This in turn created the opportunity for novel cognitive capabilities: creativity, abstraction, complex problem solving and learning.Taken as a whole, the history of the human species is that of successful collaboration and learning.

Today, it sometimes feels like we are slowly forgetting these fantastic qualities that got us so far. Right now, technology is exerting a massive influence on how we interact with each other in this world, and the quality of social interaction seems to have started to decay. There also seem to be growing disagreements about truth and a decline in the rigorous pursuit of it.

Unfortunately, we are simultaneously faced with the most devious problems threatening our existence to date.

In some way, these problems reflect our failure to safeguard our most important survival tools: the wrong kind of interaction between humans, excessive interdependence between nations and a failure to learn quickly enough have landed us in these dire straits. The pandemic, climate change and civil unrest are problems of interaction, and of joint learning.

“Our evolution has wired us for collaboration,
we are wired for kindness.”

How can we find our way out of this? To my mind, the route to recovery may be found by rediscovering our humanity. Our evolution has wired us for collaboration, we are wired for kindness. The human brain is still the most powerful learning machine in the world. The skills are there, we just need to lure them out again and, importantly, make sure that we invite them back into a supportive environment.

Better collaboration is not possible in an environment that focuses on what separates us. It needs one that allows us to find even the miniscule things we share with every other human being. For example, studies have shown that merely moving with the same rhythm as another person will increase empathetic understanding and affiliation towards them.

Efficient learning in turn requires an environment that supports positive emotions towards novelty and change, not fear of the unknown or the inconvenient. Indeed, studies have shown that curiosity is the best possible state for learning and that the brain areas responsible for memory, error detection and motivation are more active when we are curious than otherwise. When matters are unclear and difficult to understand, unbiased interest, wonder and curiosity towards the truth will help us most.

“Could you swap the discomfort
for curiosity?”

When thinking about the new year and how to make it better than the one we’ve just lived through, I’m hoping that we return to our past, in a way. That we remember again how to collaborate, and how to learn.

Let’s challenge our magnificent brains a little in these areas. For instance, find the most incomprehensible and detestable person you know and try to put yourself in their position. What would make you behave the way they do? Find a piece of information that does not fit your preconceptions and makes you uneasy. Could you swap the discomfort it causes for curiosity?

Dear reader, I believe that what happens within and between our brains today determines our future. Let’s do a level up in both arenas, together, so that we may welcome a brighter, smarter and more empathetic 2021.




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