Recent work in Neuroscience and Social Cognition has vastly changed our ways of thinking about human thought and action, but this work has not been readily accessible to historians. This site seeks to close this gap by bringing neuroscientists and historians together to forge a better understanding of people today and in the past.
What Were They Thinking?
People prefer to live in a predictable world and they become stressed and unhappy when their world fills with unexpected events. This is why colonization, one of the oldest human activities, creates one of the most difficult of all social situations. By its very nature, colonization brings together people who looked different, spoke different languages, and had different customs and lifeways. The fact that colonization was usually an armed and coercive affair added an element of danger to the volatile mix.
While much has been written about the economic, political, and social impact of colonization, we still understand very little about the cognitive and psychological side of the colonial process. In the absence of connections to psychological and cognitive research, most writers impute motives and understandings to historical actors and make assumptions about colonial interchanges based on popular psychology and “common-sense” understandings of how the minds of colonizers and indigenous people worked. Sometimes these writers’ intuitions are supported by experimental findings, but more often they are not.
History, Meet Social Cognitive Neuroscience
Cognitive history uses the work of psychologists and neuroscientists to provide a better and more informed understanding of how cognition actually worked in the past. Especially important for historians is the subfield of social cognition that seeks to understand how the human mind works in social situations. Social cognition works outward from two sets of ideas. The first is that all thought processes (the mind) are functions of the human brain and that the brain operates as part of the human body (embodied cognition). The second understanding is that the human brain is a social brain and that what goes on in the brain itself is as much a response to events taking place outside the cranial vault as it is by internal events within the brain itself.
Combining the work of cognitive scientists with more traditional historical research, cognitive history seeks to expand the scope of historical investigation and provide a clearer and more sophisticated understanding of human action in the past. Applied to colonization in the first global age, cognitive history offers unique insights into the human dimension of the cross-cultural interchanges that defined this colonial process.
Neuroscience and Social Cognition: What Are They and What Do They Have To Do With History?
Neuroscience is the branch of science that deals with the brain and nervous systems of humans and other animals. In conjunction with recent advances in cell biology (how cells work) and molecular biology (the physical chemistry of biological systems) neuroscience now has a clearer understanding of how the human brain works than at any time in the past. While hundreds of unanswered questions remain, neuroscience has allowed us to view all aspects of brain function, including cognition, as a distributed set of processes located in the three-pound wonder that is the human brain.
Social cognitive neuroscience uses the findings of neuroscience to better understand the close integration of social life and the workings of the brain. Using fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imagery) scanners, social cognitive psychologists have explored traditional social psychological questions such as the influence of others on decision-making and new questions about prejudice, social memory, and the representation of others. Though a new field that is barely a decade old, what social cognitive psychologists have discovered is that the human brain is very much a social brain and that most human cognition takes place, not in the head alone, but in the social world of which it is an integral part.
The discoveries of neuroscience and especially social cognitive neuroscience have a great deal to say to historians. Historians have always relied on psychological explanations simply because most history is about explaining human thought and action. Few historians, however, are familiar with what psychologists understand about human behavior. Instead most employ common cultural understandings of folk or “pop” psychology to explain the actions of, for example, leaders and the public or the social interchange between colonizers and indigenous people. Although pop psychology has deep roots in every culture and offers people (including historians) seemingly “natural” explanations for human actions, viewed in the light of social cognitive research, many if not most of these explanations reveal more about the everyday culture of writers than they do about the psychological roots of the actions they describe. Given this discrepancy between the science of social cognition and the explanations historians offer for people’s actions in the past, it is clear that a better understanding of psychology will make for better historians. There is a natural affinity between the two disciplines and there is much to be gained by applying the findings of social cognition to our understanding of people in past time.
I've suggested some readings in social cognition and neuroscience at the "Some Useful Readings" link below.