Cogito ergo sum?

Examination (photo credit:

Some might say that our thoughts alone define us. Intellect. Logic. The cool critical edge of reason. Examination results have never been more important and, as the bar is jacked higher, more and more rides on those grades. While this is true in a sense, it also follows that, as students leave school with identical clean sheets of top grades, these grades no longer differentiate between them – that grades are telling us less about individuals and their true performances.

Indeed, Geoff MacDonald, former global VP of HR for Unilever, who spoke at Tudor a couple of years ago, describes top grades as little more than, in his words, ‘hygiene factors’, and that the challenge faced in recruitment was a challenge to find people with values, passions, and beliefs – with character.

I was reminded of this as Justine Hardy addressed the school in her recent Nanette Godfrey Memorial lecture. She told us that, post Enlightenment, post Rene Descartes’ brutally reductive assertion that ‘cogito ergo sum’, ‘I think therefore I am’, that Western values have encouraged successive generations to view the body as little more than the life support system for the brain, instead of as a single, albeit miraculous, part of an amazing whole. Justine put her money where her mouth was on this one, asking her audience to listen to music and to sit, eyes closed, in attentive silence, listening to their bodies for what was the first time that day that many of us had even had the time to consider our physical selves.

Justine Hardy bw square
Justine Hardy (photo credit: Cara Chamberlain)

Justine’s presentation hinged on the metaphor of a gazelle hunted by a lion. Her point? That all is not as it seems with Descartes’ bold assertion that it is our rationality which defines us. Yes, the neocortex might be the seat of human reason, but look again at that word: neocortex – new rind – new brain. There’s an older animal, lurking within the human.

In essence, we’re all still animals. We’re scanning for predators and threats every moment of every day and, when there are no threats, we create them, starting a spiral of negative thought and, because the brain’s made that way, these thoughts have the capacity to shape our experience of reality. When a soldier freezes in combat – when we freeze in an exam, or a tricky situation – the brain has scanned for threats and, as it would in the wild, has made the calculated decision to play dead.

Strange for someone teaching in a school to say, but our thoughts do not define us – science teaches us that that the neocortex functions alongside the considerably older reptilian and limbic brains and that much of our negative thought is little more than an evolutionary consequence of the lack of predators and mortal fear in our day-to-day lives – not that this is a bad thing!

So, next time the voices in your head start their nasty little self-critical whisperings, try to remember that you were designed to think that way, that your negative thoughts are the natural consequence of having evolved to scan for threats. Then, assess the true threat of a broken laptop, or a misplaced file and ask yourself how serious the consequences of this really are. Hopefully, you’ll be able to get on with your day.


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