The theory of Complementary Cognition explains how humans evolved to specialise neurocognitively in different but complementary ways of searching for information that work together as a complex adaptive system. This may be key to understanding our species’ exceptional capacity to adapt through behavioural and technological adaptation. As a consequence of specialisation, our species most effectively adapt as groups made up of individuals with complementary cognitive abilities. The huge advantage of this is that it enables our species to adapt much faster and more flexibly. Such adaptiveness lies at the heart of our species’ success. The downside is that if groups are not made up of complementary cognitive abilities, group behaviour and culture can quickly become maladaptive and unsustainable with significant negative consequences.
We believe that what lies at the foundation of many of the problems we see today is the difficulty of adapting at scale, and a lack of awareness that we adapt through complementary cognition. For most of our existence, humans primarily lived in highly collaborative hunter-gatherer tribes. For this system of collective cognition to enable us to adapt at scale, we need to be aware of it so that we can design and build systems from education to the economy that nurture different ways of thinking as well as effective communication and collaboration. Harnessing the power of complementary cognition – combining different cognitive search abilities – would enable humans to co-create superior technologies, solve more complex problems and accelerate successful and sustainable adaptation to the significant changes we face.
Helen is currently Research Associate and Project Lead on the Complementary Cognition, Entrepreneurship & Societal Adaptation at the University of Strathclyde. She works in collaboration with Professor Nigel Lockett and Professor Eleanor Shaw. Helen did her Bachelor and Masters degrees at the UCL and won further scholarship funding to do her doctorate at the University of Cambridge where her PhD research investigated the emergence of social complexity in humans. For her subsequent post-doctoral work she researched dyslexia to try and understand what this form of cognition was and why it existed. From this she developed a new theory of human cognitive evolution which draws on economic and complex systems theory and is supported by a range of evidence from cognitive psychology, neuroscience, evolution, paleo-environmental evidence and archaeology.