What’s So Special About the Human Mind?

12 December 2013 | London, UK

What makes the human mind so special? And how can we best understand it?

The Human Mind Project aims to highlight the contribution of the arts and humanities to the study of human nature, and the importance of a comprehensive, interdisciplinary approach to the study of the mind, integrating science and the humanities.

The Project coincides with major research programmes in the United States and Europe aimed at defining the structure and function of the brain. Our launch event brought together leading figures from a wide range of disciplines, including philosophy, cognitive neuroscience, linguistics, artificial intelligence and evolutionary biology.


Nicola Clayton (Cambridge), Robin Dunbar (Oxford), Vittorio Gallese (Parma) and Deidre Wilson (London).


In the run up to the launch of The Human Mind Project, the School of Advanced Study conducted a series of short interviews with our initial project team for the Talking Humanities blog.  Check out the interviews below.

Robin Dunbar



Professor Robin Dunbar is a British anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist, based at the University of Oxford.

First of all, could you tell us a bit about yourself and your area of research?

I work on social evolution in primates and humans, and one of the key areas of interest for us is the role of storytelling and literature (and hence, more generally, art)  in the context of social bonding in large communities.  We are exploring the role of shared worldviews and shared knowledge in the context of social cohesion. The role of cognition, and especially social cognition, is central to this.  I also collaborate with historians on Viking Age Iceland where we use the sagas as sources of information on behaviour, as well as with literature folk on experimental studies of onstage drama and the psychological mechanisms that underlie the appreciation of storytelling.

The Human Mind Project is a collaborative venture between the humanities and the sciences.  What do you think are the particular opportunities and challenges for this type of collaboration?

The sciences provide the humanities with a rigorous hypothesis-testing methodology that facilities more robust insights into phenomena, in addition to a theoretical framework that allows more explicit hypothesis-testing. The humanities provide science with a very rich source of ‘ethnographic’ knowledge that is essential for good hypothesis-testing, as well as, in some cases, some useful hypotheses to put to rigorous test.

What do you hope the Human Mind Project will achieve?

My hope is that the Human Mind Project will provide a new fillip for the humanities by introducing novel theoretical dimensions, especially in terms of psychology (literary studies have largely used rather outdated psychoanalytic theory in the past). In return, the sciences will gain novel pastures in which to explore completely new kinds of phenomena.


Nicola Clayton
nicola_clayton-300x208Professor Nicola Clayton is from the University of Cambridge. Clayton is a professor of Comparative Cognition and the scientist in residence at Rambert Dance Company.

 First of all, could you tell us a bit about yourself and your area of research?

I’m Professor of Comparative Cognition in the Department of Psychology at Cambridge University, and a Fellow of Clare College. I was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 2010.

My expertise as a scientist lies in the contemporary study of how animals and children think. This work has led to a re-evaluation of the cognitive capacities of animals, particularly birds, and resulted in a theory that intelligence evolved independently in at least two distantly related groups, the apes and the crows. I have also pioneered new procedures for the experimental study of memory and imagination in animals, investigating its relationship to human memory and consciousness, and how and when these abilities develop in young children.

In addition I am also a dancer, specializing in Argentine tango and salsa. I am also Scientist in Residence at the Rambert Dance Company, collaborating with Mark Baldwin, the Artistic Director, on new choreographic works inspired by science (Comedy of Change, 2009, 2013; Seven For A Secret Never To Be Told, 2011; What Wild Ecstasy, 2012).

My most recent collaboration with artist and writer Clive Wilkins arose out of our mutual interest in imagination, and its consequences for consciousness, identity and memory. We also regularly dance tango together.

The Human Mind Project is a collaborative venture between the humanities and the sciences. What do you think are the particular opportunities and challenges for this type of collaboration?

We are all interested in the human condition, and how to circumnavigate the miasma of being. To explore the edges we need to step out of our original disciplines, and explore those improbable connections. Clear communication will be key, as well as the ability to adopt different perspectives.

What do you hope the Human Mind Project will achieve?

I don’t know, and I am so glad I don’t! The exciting questions are the open ended ones that don’t have an obvious answer at the beginning of the adventure.


Vittorio Gallese


Vittorio Gallese is professor of human physiology at the University of Parma, Italy. 

First of all, could you tell us a bit about yourself and your area of research?

I am a cognitive neuroscientist. The main topic of my empirical and theoretical research during the last twenty years has dealt with the cognitive role of the sensorimotor system. I am exploring how the brain-body system creates and expresses meaning, and it is able to communicate it to others. In particular, I am trying to deconstruct with the tools of cognitive neuroscience some of the ‘words’ we normally employ to describe how we relate to the world and experience it. These words include action, goal, intention, empathy, self, emotion, intersubjectivity, aesthetic experience, etc.

The Human Mind Project is a collaborative venture between the humanities and the sciences.  What do you think are the particular opportunities and challenges for this type of collaboration?

Great opportunities indeed. The second half of the 20th century witnessed the enormous progress of cognitive neuroscience, also fostered by the development of new technologies like brain imaging, enabling for the first time a thorough non-invasive study of the human brain. Since then cognitive neuroscience started addressing topics related to social cognition like intersubjectivity, the self, empathy, free will, decision-making, ethics and aesthetics, many of which were traditionally the object of investigation of different disciplines like psychology, philosophy, economy and politics. These recent developments are stirring an ever growing debate on the heuristic value of cognitive neuroscience when applied to these topics.

If one of the main tasks of cognitive neuroscience consists of shedding light on what it means to be human, cognitive neuroscience MUST open itself to a dialogue and confrontation with disciplines like philosophy, anthropology, and sociology. A mature social cognitive neuroscience can’t limit itself to scanning brains in a lab. It must be open to the contributions from all these disciplines. In this respect, I am rather optimistic. I see a future of ever-growing and stimulating dialogue between cognitive neuroscience and the humanities.

What do you hope the Human Mind Project will achieve?

I do hope that the Human Mind Project will foster such a fruitful dialogue and confrontation and eventually lead to a common language. What makes us human is a complex and multi-layered manifold. The contribution cognitive neuroscience may provide to scholars in the humanities is, to put it very simply, a different and complementary level of description of the very same manifold. By adding a different level of description we can learn new things.

On the other hand, the humanities can greatly broaden and enrich the scope of neuroscientific research, since the humanities primarily deal with the personal level of description of what it means to be human, a level of description as that used by literary scholars, philosophers, anthropologists, writers, artists, etc. Shortly, I do hope that the Human Mind Project will help to frame new questions and hopefully to provide new answers.

Is there anything else you would to share?

I’d like to share a quote from Primo Levi’s book ‘The Drowned and the Saved‘: ‘What we commonly mean by “understand” coincides with “simplify”: without a profound simplification the world around us would be an infinite, undefined tangle that would defy our ability to orient ourselves and decide upon our actions. In short, we are compelled to reduce the knowable to a schema: with this purpose in view we have built for ourselves admirable tools in the course of evolution, tools which are the specific property of the human species – language and conceptual thought.’ (1986, p. 36).


Annette Karmiloff Smith


Annette Karmiloff Smith is a professional research fellow at the Developmental Neurocognition Lab at Birkbeck, University of London.

First of all, could you tell us a bit about yourself and your area of research?

I am a developmental cognitive neuroscientist at the Birkbeck Centre for Brain & Cognitive Development, particularly interested in tracing higher-level cognitive deficits in genetic disorders back to their more basic-level origins in infancy. Currently I am running a project on using Down syndrome as a model for Alzheimer’s Disease and attempting to identify risk and protective factors at the cognitive and neural levels as well as with collaborators at the genetic and cellular levels.  This is because critical AD genes are located on chromosome 21 and thus overexpressed from very early in life.  I am also particularly interested in the Nature/Nurture debate and in what is special about human cognition. I developed the Representational Redescription Hypothesis to address this question.

The Human Mind Project is a collaborative venture between the humanities and the sciences.  What do you think are the particular opportunities and challenges for this type of collaboration?

Dialogue across disciplinary boundaries is always tricky because the same terms are used in very different ways. But I also hate it when neuroscientists dismiss philosophical reasoning as irrelevant. An image of the brain is no better than a pencil unless the study is hypothesis driven. So, in my view, as the disciplinary boundaries increasingly blur, the Human Mind Project endeavour is critical.

What do you hope the Human Mind Project will achieve?

Get different disciplines REALLY talking to each other and putting in joint grants which strengthen one another in both directions.

Is there anything else you would to share?
I hope the wine will be good at the reception 😉


Ziauddin Sardar


Professor Ziauddin Sardar is a London-based scholar specialising in Muslim thought. 

First of all, could you tell us a bit about yourself and your area of research?

I am a public intellectual with wide ranging interests from futures of human cultures, Islamic reform, human rights, to issues of ethics in science and technology. Currently, I am Professor of Law and Society and Chair of the Muslim Institute, a learned organisation, in London.

The Human Mind Project is a collaborative venture between the humanities and the sciences.  What do you think are the particular opportunities and challenges for this type of collaboration?

I am not a great believer in disciplinary boundaries; and I think humanities are as important as science for viable futures of humanity. Given that every scientific advance raises a host of ethical, moral, philosophical and social issues, it is important that humanities and sciences collaborate and work together to illuminate a pluralistic and socially just path towards the future.

What do you hope the Human Mind Project will achieve?

A better understanding of what makes us human and appreciation of other than western ways of being human.


Paul Fletcher

C0085995 Experimental Stories event at the Sanger

Paul Fletcher is a psychiatrist from the University of Cambridge.

First of all, could you tell us a bit about yourself and your area of research?

I am a psychiatrist. I try to understand and help people who suffer from psychotic illness. Psychosis refers to a loss of touch with reality. People with psychosis hold and defend strange and often frightening beliefs (referred to as delusions) and they perceive things (perhaps visions or voices – often referred to as hallucinations) that cannot be accounted for objectively.

My research is based on two core beliefs:

a.            It is mistaken to consider the symptoms of psychotic illness in isolation. We should acknowledge that perception and belief are not separate – every perceptual experience is an act of belief and is heavily based on what one already knows. This has long been known in physiology but seems often to be missing in psychological models of delusions and hallucinations.

b.            Perception/belief in the healthy state almost always diverges from objective reality. The brain is a very deceitful organ, doing much of its processing in secret and offering up to consciousness a pre-digested summary of the world around us. With this in mind, the state of psychosis is not as bizarre as we might think.

My work involves the use of subjective, psychophysical and brain imaging measures in people with psychotic illness and in healthy volunteers receiving an infusion of a drug that causes such symptoms in mild and transient form. I want to unite several levels of explanation – from the brain to cognition to social context – in pursuit of an improved understanding of how psychotic symptoms arise and develop because an explanation that neglects any of these levels, or assigns undue privilege to one above the others, will prove inadequate.

The Human Mind Project is a collaborative venture between the humanities and the sciences.  What do you think are the particular opportunities and challenges for this type of collaboration?

An understanding of psychosis, indeed of the mind, must ultimately emerge at multiple levels: at one end, we have the observations of single neurons and of how they act in ensembles and circuits and how the relationships between cells and systems enable computation and information processing. At the other end, we must understand how brains interact with the environment and with other brains. While specialisation is necessary and inevitable, the field of psychiatry has already demonstrated the difficulties posed by a balkanised discipline in which some people ignore the brain and others ignore the environment.

What do you hope the Human Mind Project will achieve?

I hope that it will offer an opportunity to synthesise insights from different levels of description and explanation. Bringing together research in several areas of brain and mind sciences with insights from the humanities will offer new ways of thinking about long-standing puzzles. In particular, I feel that my own work on mental illness has much to gain from enhanced understanding of people’s actions and experiences in the social domain since understanding symptoms of psychosis, and  the suffering that they cause, must entail scrutiny of their impact on social interaction and of the isolation and exclusion that they cause.

Is there anything else you would to share?

I have long had a feeling that there are more insights to the human experience in a chapter of George Eliott than there are in whole textbooks of psychology and cognition.


Dominic Johnson


Dominic Johnson is from the University of Oxford.    

Hello Dominic, first, could you tell us a bit about yourself and your area of research?

I am the Alistair Buchan Professor of International Relations at the University of Oxford, and a fellow of St. Antony’s College.

I did a DPhil in biology at Oxford, and a PhD in political science at Geneva University. Drawing on both disciplines, I am interested in how new research on biology, evolution, and human nature is challenging our understanding of human conflict and cooperation, not least in international relations.

My two books have focused on the role of the human mind in shaping international events. Overconfidence and War: The Havoc and Glory of Positive Illusions (Harvard University Press, 2004) argues that common psychological biases to maintain overly positive images of our capabilities, our control over events, and the future, play a key role in the causes of war. Failing to Win: Perceptions of Victory and Defeat in International Politics (Harvard University Press, 2006), written with political scientist Dominic Tierney, examines how and why popular misperceptions can go so far as to reverse apparent victories or defeats in wars and international crises.

My current work focuses on the role of evolutionary processes, evolutionary psychology, and religion in human conflict and cooperation.

The Human Mind Project is a collaborative venture between the humanities and the sciences.  What do you think are the particular opportunities and challenges for this type of collaboration?

Collaboration is hard enough within our own disciplines. Collaborating across disciplines can be very challenging indeed – we do our work with very different philosophical foundations, mindsets, methodologies, and goals. During the past academic year in 2012-2013, I helped to lead a residential research team of scientists, philosophers and theologians at the Centre of Theological Inquiry in Princeton, working on the implications of new research in evolution and human nature for our understanding of religion. It was an exhilarating experience, but one that taught us much about the difficulties of interdisciplinary research as well as its great benefits.

With strikingly different starting points and assumptions about how the world works, even how knowledge works, there are significant obstacles if we are to make progress rather than merely make conversation. We found that sustained dialogue is vital. To really get to grips with different disciplinary perspectives takes months or years, great patience, and sustained commitment. The Human Mind project represents an unusual opportunity to create the kind of long-term, focused engagement that is needed to break new ground. It has already succeeded in the first step of attracting a remarkable group of open-minded, creative thinkers to get the conversation going.

What do you hope the Human Mind Project will achieve?

The material world revolves around the sun, but our social world revolves around human minds. Nothing happens without people perceiving, thinking, innovating, acting, advocating, negotiating, leading, following, cooperating, and sometimes conflicting. All of these processes stem from human minds, and the interactions among them. Yet, oddly enough, while numerous people are engaged in the study or management of human beings, few of them actually examine how the human mind itself works.

Human nature is a kind of black box, subject to the philosophical trends and assumptions of the day. Meanwhile, the sciences are opening up the black box and finding it is not all darkness. The rapid advances in biology and medicine make it hard even for a scientist to keep up with developments and the state of scientific knowledge. A growing challenge is therefore how to gather and disseminate the science—to scholars, the media, and the public—as well as making time to seek perspectives from other disciplines about the kind of science that is or should be done and what its implications will be.

The academic environment often tends to channel new generations along deepening disciplinary boundaries, exactly at a time in human endeavour when we need to think about ways to break down disciplinary walls and address the huge challenges of the 21st century—such as war, climate change, and population growth—from multiple disciplinary angles. These are precisely the challenges that the Human Mind Project is uniquely posed to tackle.

Is there anything else you would to share?

Interest in the role of human biology on mind and behaviour is increasing, witnessed for example by the rise in academia of behavioural economics and political psychology, as well as in the real world by the public policy focused “Evolution Institute” in the United States or the “Nudge” unit (the Behavioural Insights Team) in the UK Government Cabinet Office. People are taking scientific approaches to human behaviour seriously, and this can only be a good thing given the giant strides that science is making in the new century. The great puzzle is why many people, and many academic disciplines, remain so resistant to scientific explanations of human behaviour, and the unifying framework for understanding human nature that is offered by Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Programme & Organisation

What’s So Special About the Human Mind?  was organized by the team of The Human Mind Project. An inclusive hub for the facilitation of interdisciplinary dialogue and enquiry, The Human Mind Project aims to define the major intellectual challenges facing research on the human mind.