A public seminar from the Department of Education, given by Dr Neil Mercer, University of Cambridge.
In recent years, researchers in evolutionary psychology and anthropology have proposed that we have evolved with “social brains” that enable us to manage complex social relationships. Research in neuroscience also encourages the view that humans have a distinctively social form of intelligence. I suggest that the concept of the social brain is potentially useful for understanding the dynamic, iterative relationship between individual thinking and social activity, and the role of language in mediating that relationship. This gives the concept educational relevance. However, I argue that its current conceptualization is too individualistic; it needs to be redefined to take account of the distinctive human capacity for thinking collectively. Vygotskian sociocultural theory and empirical research derived from it offer a useful basis for this reconceptualization, enabling a better understanding of the relationship between “intermental” activity and “intramental’ and hence the processes of teaching and learning. Finally, I consider the implications of this reconceptualization of the social brain for educational theory, research and practice.