Mattia Gallotti and Chris D. Frith, ‘Social Cognition in the We-Mode’, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 17 (2013), 160-5.
When we think together, do we think differently? This paper considers the possibility that ‘interacting agents’ can enter an ‘irreducibly collective’ mode of thinking (the ‘we-mode’) that ‘expands each individual’s potential for social understanding and action’. The goal of their essay is to find a ‘scientifically plausible model’ for a ‘meeting of minds’.
They evaluate experiments that suggest ‘the we-mode might work as an implicit and automatic mechanism of mentalizing’. They offer the prospect of pinning down, in future research, how joint action ‘modulates the space of mental activity’, using resources that ‘remain latent until individuals become engaged in particular interactive contexts’.
The aspiration is to be more specific than social science has been thus far about collective mental activity. Something like Elias Canetti’s Crowds and Power might be a brilliant account of experiences and effects, but it does not offer what cognitive science seeks out: an account of unique, distinguishable, identifiable processes that emerge in strictly controlled behavioural or neuroscientific experiments.
Literature is full of collective experience, from the intimate scale (couples, siblings) to the vast (crowds, nations). It seems a small step to think that its many depictions of we-in-action might be able to tell us something. Crowd scenes in plays, for example, give us both a ‘they-acting-as-we’ and a ‘we[audience] drawn into we[onstage crowd plus audience]’ to think about. This still seems like Crowds and Power, though. It might be less easy to make the same move that Gallotti and Frith are trying to make, towards a nuanced appreciation of the we-space and its resources.
I think an interesting place to explore the particulars of the we-mode in literature is in lyric poetry. It is a good place to think about how the word ‘we’ speaks to and for the we-mode. Lyric, and love-poetry in particular, is a testing-ground for pronouns. The ‘I’ has to hold together in emotional crisis. ‘You’ are addressed, something to be reached, resisted, or won over.
I must admit than whenever I think about ‘you’ in lyric, I think of this song:
It starts with a long ‘you’, and has some long ‘I’s too. But no ‘we’, not even in the funny bit about Madonna.
Lyric’s links with song suggests a way in which a poetic we-mode might arise. The experience of singing along, or of reading a ‘we’ that suggests singing along, might create ways of feeling and understanding what ‘we’ makes happen.
Instead of focusing on one of those moments, I want to start somewhere that’s rather anxious about the we-mode: Shakespeare’s Sonnet 123. This sequence of poems has a very tightly-wound ‘I’ and it isn’t dominated by mutual experience. Its very first line, though (‘From fairest creatures we desire increase’, Sonnet 1 Line 1) uses the pronoun and actually challenges us immediately. Is the claim self-evident? Do we wish to procreate with the most beautiful partners necessarily?
Sonnet 123 is one of many that tries to deny the power of time. Change is overstated – there’s nothing new under the sun – perhaps love will last forever. The argument about time is complicated – more satisfying for its defiance than for its intellectual coherence. The pronoun ‘we’ plays a part in the second quatrain (lines 5-8). (I suggest you place your mouse over the highlighted pronouns in order, to see what I am trying to get at. Don’t miss the ‘I’ in the last line.)
No! Time, thou shalt not boast that I do change.
Thy pyramids built up with newer might
To are nothing novel, nothing strange;
They are but dressings of a former sight.
Our dates are brief, and therefore admire
What thou dost foist upon us that is old,
And rather make them born to desire
Than think that we before have heard them told.
Thy registers and thee I both defy,
Not wond’ring at the present, nor the past,
For thy records, and what we see, doth lie,
Made more or less by thy continual haste.
This I do vow and this shall ever be:
will be true despite thy scythe and thee.
We have got rather a long way from Gallotti and Frith, but I think Shakespeare’s poem proposes some differences between how ‘I’ think and how ‘we’ think. The ‘we’ of the poem seem engaged and responsive, where the ‘I’ is separatist, persistent.
It may be risky to generalise too far from such particular circumstances. It may be difficult to see how this idea of a we-mode could be tested further or verified. Nevertheless, it seems an encouraging start: lyric poetry’s network of pronouns could tackle many facets of the question in the course of representing vivid lifelike experiences (and that’s the thing that literature can do better than a laboratory).