Are We Stuck at a Cognitive Threshold?

The complexity of issues facing us is outstripping our ability to understand and solve them. Governmental institutions spin on gerbil wheels of outmoded, linear processes and procedures, attempting to tackle issues with multiple, inter-connected parts one part at a time. This is as true in the United States Congress as it is in state legislatures and city councils.

In the world of business, economic considerations (i.e., profit), trumps all other criteria in determining whether or how complex threats to our world will be tackled.

Neither of these strategies—business as usual and economic value as the only true value—are working. Except perhaps for a few, for a short time.

We have reached what Rebecca D. Costa refers to as a “cognitive threshold” or “the point at which society can do longer ‘think’ its way out of its problems.” In The Watchman’s Rattle: A Radical New Theory of CollapseCosta makes the case that when a society reaches this cognitive threshold, it begins passing unresolved issues from one generation to the next until one or more of these problems leads to society collapsing.

Costa claims that there are two early signs that a society is approaching collapse: (1) gridlock: when societies are unable to comprehend or resolve large, complex problems; and (2) when people substitute beliefs for knowledge and fact.

The signs of gridlock and reliance on beliefs are ubiquitous in the United States. These signs motivate me to continue looking at how we can tap the burgeoning knowledge about the human brain to design and conduct innovative, collaborative processes that enable people to go beyond the cognitive threshold at which we appear to be stuck.

Here’s how we can use the human brain to help us over this cognitive threshold.

First, we now know that we have the ability to change the structure and function of the human brain through mindfulness meditation. The research is growing in breadth and depth testifying to our ability to use our minds to train our brains. (For more information about this, you are welcome to read previous blogs starting with Change the Brain for Good.)

Second, perhaps the most important part of what we are learning from this research is that we do not have to be prisoners of our biology. We do not have to get overwhelmed when faced with complex issues. We can use attention and awareness (developed in meditation) to help us consciously access and balance attention among critical networks in our brains.

Third, we can investigate what triggers us, like having beliefs questioned. We can learn about how we get emotionally and cognitively hijacked and what the impact of this hijacking is on our ability to be a constructive participant in or leader of collaborative change processes. Knowing this positions us to make conscious choices about how to manage ourselves and to help others from polarizing into gridlock.

Finally, we can practice integrative thinking, holding apparently conflicting views, beliefs, or ideas and resisting the urge to fight or flee from the discomfort of this cognitive dissonance. We can develop the ability to live with the tension or stress involved in interacting with people whose ideas contradict our own. Understanding others’ views and suspending judgment, at least for a while, is the only way I know for new ways forward to emerge.

Bill Bancroft, David Sibbet and I are investigating all of these in a series of on-line Exchanges called The Neuropsychology of Collaboration through the Global Learning and Exchange Network (The GLEN). Our third session is next week on April 16. Recording of previous sessions are available when you register. Click here for more information.

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