Advancing the Value of Ethnography

The Power of Not Thinking


The Power of Not Thinking: How Our Bodies Learn and Why We Should Trust Them
Simon Roberts
2020, 336 pp, Blink Publishing/Bonnier

In The Power of Not Thinking: How Our Bodies Learn and Why We Should Trust Them, Simon Roberts aims to resuscitate the human body from the sepulchre of Western thought, where Descartes and his successors presumably buried it, and to correct popular misconceptions about how we generate knowledge. In the author’s words:

“Our intelligence does not just arise from our brains… nor can it be programmed as a set of rules or propositions that enables us to think in particular ways or perform particular actions. Instead, our understanding of the world arises from our bodies’ interactions with and perceptions of the world – and it is through these interactions that our bodies acquire knowledge.” (p. 6)

This proposition will be taken for granted by some readers of this review, and by anyone who follows its intellectual touchpoints: embodied cognition, situated learning, the environmental mediation of thought, and so on. Yet in business practice, the idea persists that intelligence is disembodied, objective, universal. Roberts’ book is an effort to convince business professionals to value a wider range of knowledge and experience than their daily corporate practices call for.

In a sense, then, the author’s task in writing this book will be recognized by any ethnographer who has labored to distill a complex process of research and analysis into a compelling deliverable. The artefacts we create for stakeholders deploy familiar formats and narratives—in slide decks, data visualizations, videos—to persuade them of something new. They are crafted not just to present data, but with rhetorical devices designed to make change. In many ways The Power of Not Thinking is successful at this task; it also makes compromises in the service of persuasion that should concern us.

The book is structured like a business case study in three parts: crisis, solution, results. Throughout, anecdotes are interlaced with lessons that are both practical and moral; the lessons are richly supported by explanations of the science behind them. It is written in an easy-going, at times eloquent, and always heartfelt conversational style that crisscrosses the borderlines of popular science, self-help and business advice.

Part One traces the trajectory of the crisis in Western epistemology, beginning with Descartes’ dictum: I think therefore I am. This is a perennial origin myth of Western mind-body dualism and thus a logical starting point. I might quibble that it was only one milestone in a thousand-year European clerical tradition of reviling the body and distorting the pursuit of truth, that similar views are found in others of the world’s philosophical traditions (so it’s not particularly Western), and that the skeptical Descartes may have been questioning that bit of received knowledge as much as enshrining it. But Roberts’ goal here is surely more rhetorical than historical: stipulate Descartes as the original sinner, then lead us on a quick sweep through Pascal, Babbage, Lovelace, and assorted mechanical calculating devices, landing at last in the world of Big Data and AI, characterized in these early chapters as the ultimate display of Cartesian hubris. (Fortunately, the book’s final chapter balances that with an account of how AI has evolved into something a lot more body-aware.) The narrative feels effective, particularly for an audience not inclined to intricacies of historiography, but it makes compromises worth debating. Not least for ethnographers, the story is not very sociocultural. And Lovelace notwithstanding, it is essentially a “great man” (or not-so-great-man) approach to history, and ironically, a disembodied one.

The rest of Part One drives the point home with case after case of Cartesianism unhinged, from automated essay-grading software in schools to the awfulness of crime-prediction algorithms. These examples of algorithmic injustice will ring lots of bells for readers who have either personally experienced similar things or read the growing body of critical research or widespread journalistic exposés. Roberts then marshals counter-examples that highlight holistic ways of knowing, such as The Knowledge of London cab drivers and octopuses with brain matter distributed in their tentacles. The counter-examples provide compelling contrast, and are effective in conveying Roberts’ key point that “It is not knowledge that resides in our brains but comes to inhabit our bodies” (p. 7).

There’s an obvious problem with this formulation: aren’t our brains part of our bodies? Indeed they are, as the author himself emphasizes clearly throughout the book’s introduction and elsewhere, especially in the case studies in Part Three. Despite his sensitivity to that fact, subtle brain vs. body distinctions find a way of creeping into the picture: “[factual] knowledge is not without merit,” he writes, “but it’s an entirely different sort of understanding from that which arises from interaction with the world” (p. 59). Sitting at a desk while learning facts is itself a mode of interaction with the world; and ethnographers and other scholars have substantially documented the embodied nature of virtually all human activity. Yet this sort of factual/experiential distinction crops up a lot in the book, creating a current that could reinforce the very idea that Roberts hopes to undermine: that one particular body part—the one inside our heads—is shut off from the rest and engages with the surrounding world on its own. That is not a critique of Roberts’ logic so much as a recognition of how hard it is to use words like brain, body, mind, consciousness and learning without tacitly endorsing assumptions about them that we’ve grown up with.

Part Two offers a way out of the epistemological impasse by describing characteristics that Roberts says are keys to acquiring and using embodied knowledge, including observation, practice, improvisation, and empathy. One of the most valuable aspects of this section is Roberts’ critique, with accompanying anecdotes, of the hegemony of the visual sense. Scholars these days may still lament the decline of the written word and the rise of a world oriented to learning through images, but those laments don’t grapple with the fact that both modalities take place through our eyesight, and neither of them pays much attention to our other senses. Simon Roberts wants us to more radically “rebalance our understanding” (p. 20), and that means using all the senses as pathways to effective learning.

He makes his case with examples from around the world, including bicyclists whose feats of dynamic balance defy mathematical description, vernacular architects who “learn without being taught”, and a man who tries with the help of sophisticated prosthetics to discover what it’s like to be a goat. Taken together, they remind us how multimodal and sensorially sophisticated our bodies are as information sources, and what a shame it is when we ignore much of that capacity.

This section also connects Roberts’ argument directly to ethnographic research:

“So far, we have explored largely practical skills like driving, glass-blowing and golf. However, learning how a culture works, or at least how to fit into one without standing out like a sore thumb, is a process of knowledge acquisition and follows a very similar pattern, in which the body is central… [C]ultural knowledge, like much of the practical knowledge we’ve been exploring, is fuzzy at the best of times.” (p. 125)

So it’s not just about bodies but also about cultures, and about research methods that pay attention to the intertwining of the two. To rescue us from tediously reductive, numbers-driven pursuits, the book calls for face-to-face, in-context, culturally informed ways of knowing. As Roberts puts it: “Digital technology, big data, artificial intelligence and machine learning are all part of this attempt to reduce things to their most basic level…. Making the case for embodied knowledge is one way of challenging this view” (p. 196).

Part Three brings the practical payoff, and points again to the constituencies that Roberts hopes to influence. Anecdotes, many based on his own firm’s client engagements, show the advantage of embodied learning in business, political and social policy-making, and design. Each story begins with people trying to solve thorny problems while struggling under “the mechanical conception of the world that Descartes and his contemporaries unleashed” (p. 221). The author and his colleagues have devised an exhilarating array of techniques to break the grip of mentalism, often taking people far from their comfort zones—sleeping in a forest, being subjected to a simulated mugging—and always to good effect. Roberts argues in this final part that an embodied approach leads to better problem-solving because it leverages qualities like empathy that are uniquely human. That is the “competitive advantage” humans have over artificial intelligence.

Will The Power of Not Thinking persuade a certain audience that bodies “are our superpower, and we should celebrate them” (p. 302)? More to the point, can it be a model for researchers in dialogue with clients around ways to broaden the scope of research pursuits? Maybe, but I worry that it is also a cautionary tale about the dangers of telling oversimplified stories for rhetorical effect. Consider this statement:

“Much teaching relies on the transmission of knowledge in context-free environments and depends little on actually ‘being there’. However… it is only through visceral involvement that we are truly able to learn and understand.” (p. 248)

Try telling that to a theoretical physicist or a mathematician. While such claims give the book a provocative edge that propels it forward and makes it readable, they also give rise to an inherent weakness. By sharpening its argument to such a fine point—most learning is literally context-free, but special forms of learning are authentically visceral—crucial nuance is lost and some of the book’s central claims become disputable.

One passage in particular (pp. 82–89) suggests what happens when these rhetorical choices are pushed too far. It is a long anecdote from Michael Lewis’ The Big Short in which a money manager named Steve Eisman believes the mortgage-collateralized bond market is due for a reckoning. He has examined the numbers and they all say the same thing, but he’s not ready to pull the trigger. Then he goes to a financiers’ conference in Las Vegas where he has a chance to observe close-up the irrational optimism of mortgage bond salesmen and the marginalization of bond raters who should be restraining that exuberance but aren’t. Case closed: he takes a short position and reaps a nine-figure profit as the housing market collapses. The lesson of course is about the value of a certain “something else” which can never be gained from “only a theoretical picture” of the world.

True enough. But Roberts leaves out the parallel story, also in the Lewis book, of Michael Burry, an investor self-described as socially awkward and not that interested in spending time with people. He came to an identical conclusion about the mortgage market, and reaped a similar profit, but through the opposite strategy: sitting in his office, analyzing vast reams of statistical data that nobody else had ever had the appetite to look at. In Burry’s own words: “Every bit of logic I had led me to this trade and I had to do it”. Every bit of logic.

So, if “Eisman created a perspective that was based on experience rather than intellect” (p. 86), what can be said about that perspective, and the story as a whole, if we put Michael Burry back in and compare it to the version that’s in The Power of Not Thinking? For one thing, oppositions like “experience rather than intellect” start to look even shakier than they already did. The revised story becomes more ambiguous, but also more interesting. This ambiguous picture invites us to ponder the splitting and overlapping of diverse pathways to knowledge, which can arise from complex interaction among perception, memory, logic, calculation, emotion and other faculties. I think Roberts would find such an account perfectly consistent with his thesis, and I wish he had spent more time contemplating these ambiguities.

The Eisman anecdote is one of several times in the book when choices about what to say seem ruled by the urge to make a single point and not burden it with too many complications. Researchers who present their work to clients and stakeholders, hoping to persuade, understand well the conundrum of simplification. My fear, though, is that readers in the business world could spot the logical weaknesses imposed by this narrative stratagem and reject the book without stopping to consider its broader goals sympathetically. As Roberts himself writes: “It is often comforting to look at an uncomplicated model of the world rather than have to deal with its true messiness” (p. 54). Unfortunately for all of us who have to explain our values and worldview to people who are looking for a quick answer, that critique cuts in every direction at once.

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Gerald Lombardi

Gerald Lombardi is an anthropologist who has worked mostly in the private sector—design research, marketing research, user experience research—since his graduate school days. He lives in Tokyo and New York, and can be found on Twitter @CaveArtFan1. He is author of the EPIC articles “The De-skilling of Ethnographic Labor: Signs of an Emerging Predicament” and “Let’s Get Off the Pop-Neuroscience Bandwagon”.