Logo IMG


No Talking in the Corridors of Science

John Locke

Collaboration in the Corridor

A critical component of scientific discovery is collaboration. Nobel laureates are frequently investigators who worked together over a significant period of time. Joint effort was successful, in part, because team members had regular opportunities to share their brainstorms in an atmosphere of privacy, intimacy and trust—preconditions, one assumes, for effective collaborations in any domain where the problems are complex to the point of near-intractability.

We human beings are wonderfully adapted to collaborative effort. The ability to cooperate and work together has been indispensable to our species for scores of millennia. The legacy to us moderns is a set of specialized neural processing systems that detect facial and vocal variations, reporting to higher brain systems that inform us when individuals' intentions conflict with their superficial linguistic behaviors. Some of my colleagues have given these elaborate devices a starkly functional name—"cheater-detection mechanisms."

If some significant number of our communications occurred outside the range of these cheater-detection mechanisms, we would be skating on very thin ice indeed. Effective collaboration requires trust, which is facilitated by the transmission of personally readable behaviors—eye movements, facial expressions, vocal nuances. These cues are difficult to pick up and convey electronically. Even those with state-of-the-art teleconferencing systems comment that there is "a lot of little stuff" that they cannot receive or interpret without being physically present. But the "little stuff" is not little at all; without it, people lack confidence that they know the whole story, and without that confidence may be reluctant to act.

comments powered by Disqus


Subscribe to American Scientist