The Extended Mind: The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain. Annie Murphy Paul
Forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in June 2021
We read a lot of offers in advertising and articles to “raise our training to the next level,” but that often means simply changing our delivery technology or adopting a change in our display or delivery methods to improve the use of the brains of employees and students. But what if the next level did not so much involve technology, or best practices, or academic protocols, but instead had its basis in what research and real geniuses show us about how real thinking takes place? Annie Murphy Paul, in The Extended Mind: The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain, offers us 298 pages of how to do a better job of guiding everyone—from primary-grade students to leaders in business and government, to better learning and better performance.
Paul offers more than a simple reframe. To put it in her own words, this book aims to “operationalize the extended mind”, to turn a philosophical idea into something practically useful. As she clearly shows, the benefits of extending our thinking in research-supported ways with our bodies, our surroundings, and our relationships, go beyond the mechanical and chemical effects of blood flow and increased oxygen to the brain derived from exercise and standing on a treadmill while working, or from attempts to increase learners’ intelligence and mental strength through various “raise your IQ” apps.
So what’s wrong with the way we have always thought about thinking, and how can we improve it?
The brainbound world
“Brainbound” is Paul’s one-word description of curricula and approaches to learning that result from a fundamental misunderstanding of how and where thinking happens. Believing and acting as if thinking happens only inside the brain, designers remain bound by the limits of the brain. Approaching thinking from a belief that the brain contains a particular quality or quantity of something called intelligence in quantities that are different for each person and that can be increased, or considering the brain as a muscle that can be developed, involve metaphors that profoundly affect what we consider as possible and that in fact do result in a bad or at least ineffective product in terms of learning and performance.
Have you ever heard the proposition that “mastery in any field requires ’10,000 hours’ of practice”. This is a totally brainbound idea of expertise, focused on internal, individual effort. Perhaps a more serious issue is that though it is the smallest percentage, the brainbound “10%” element of “70-20-10” consumes most of the formal time and budget of traditional learning practice. We can do better than that.
Thinking like a magpie
Can we approach thinking with intention and skill by applying what we have learned from research? Paul offers a different, more useful metaphor that happens to more accurately reflect the way the human mind works: the magpie. Our brains, says Paul, are like magpies. Magpies fashion tools and finished nests from the materials around them, “weaving the bits and pieces they find into their trains of thought.” This is a radically new way of thinking about thinking (for academics, not for magpies), and there is a growing body of evidence from several scientific disciplines supporting it. If you have been following the development and use of Roam Research and Obsidian, you may be struck by the similarity to how these software tools work or are used in order to collect and link ideas.
P.S. Magpies are and always have been, along with all other corvids, my favorite birds. I don’t recommend them as pets, but they can be very good teachers.
Allow me to get a little personal: trust your gut
Magpie-like, I used my reMarkable tablet not only to read the book, but also to record in writing my reactions to it, to generate an understanding of the extended mind with which I was comfortable, as well to record different people’s understandings of it and my comfort level with those, and to build and to share ideas with others (including drafting this article). Even the physical and mental activity of writing on the tablet accesses and engages the interoceptive faculties.
What are the interoceptive faculties? If anyone has ever suggested that you use your gut when trying to work out a plan of action, instead of just doing it all in your head, they may have been trying to get you to trust the sensations that arise from within your own body. This is one of the avenues that Paul explores for alternative ideas to get your thinking out of your head.
Isn’t this why people enjoy and benefit from attending in-person conferences and meetings? Virtual meetings alone give you content, but do not provide the richness and depth of the in-person sensory experience and interoceptive processes.
Getting scientific again
The evidence that supports the reality and usefulness of thinking outside the brain is more than anecdotal. Paul details the support comes from three related areas of investigation:
- Embodied cognition explores the role of the body in our thinking. Making hand gestures, for example, is shown to increase the fluency of human speech and to deepen our understanding of abstract concepts.
- Situated cognition is all about the influence of place on thinking. This includes the effect of office design, as well as how camping also provides environmental cues that can enhance our performance in the given space.
- Distributed cognition looks at the effects of thinking with others. People working in groups coordinate their areas of expertise (a process called “transactive memory”). One result is that groups can work together to produce results that exceed the sum of their members’ individual contributions (“collective intelligence”).”
As Paul says, “It’s the stuff outside our heads that makes us smart—a proposition with enormous implications for what we do in education, in the workplace, and in our everyday lives.” When she began studying the research, though, there was no framework that organized all the results into a coherent whole. But she did find a start. In 1998, philosophers Andy Clark and David Chalmers wrote a paper, “The Extended Mind”, about how elements of the world outside the brain may act as mental “extensions” to allow humans to think in ways our brains could not manage on their own. The focus of the article was on the way technology can extend the mind.
Paul points out that although the idea was questionable when written in 1998, it quickly became more believable when people began using smartphones as extensions of their memory, their communication, and their view of the world around them. Even in the original paper, professor of cognitive philosophy Clark suggested that other kinds of extensions were possible, such as socially extended cognition where a person’s mental state was partly made up from the mental states of other thinkers. This sounds like social media to me. Over time, researchers have added other ways that the resources of the world enter into our trains of thought:
- Physical movements and gestures: for example, swiping a screen to put an idea into a digital archive for later recovery, aided by search through an app on a device;
- “Designer environments”: the increasing popularity of home screens on mobile devices and on desktop computers, chosen and designed by the user and contained entirely outside of the brain, that alter and simplify the tasks our brains must perform in order to solve complex problems; think about widgets and your placement of them on phone and tablet screens.
Can we incorporate into our own design repertoire the dozens of techniques for extending thinking outside our brains and into the world that researchers and practitioners have verified and developed?
Making it practical
In the book, Paul carefully and thoroughly explores how to extend the mind through several principles that move thinking from brainbound thinking to thinking with our bodies, to thinking with our surroundings, and to thinking with our relationships.
- Habits of mind: Offload information. Externalize it, move it out of our heads and into the world. Journaling, to put our thoughts down on paper. Continuous offloading is the most straightforward example. Design tasks so that one part of the task is offloaded even as another part absorbs our full attention. (Does this make you think of learning in the flow of work?) Social offloading: engage in discussion, even argument
- Transform information into an artifact. Make data into something real, proceed to interact with it, map it, feel it, tweak it, show it to others. Make abstract symbols into tangible objects and sensory experiences and so think about them in new ways. I don't recall if Annie Paul addressed this, but I think that YouTube videos, songs, and poems are the result of turning information and ideas into artifacts out in the world, outside of our brains. Has a poem ever changed your thinking about events you saw on the evening news? Remember Maya Angelou's inaugural poem? It doesn't matter the direction your thinking changed, but didn't it result in a change in your thinking in the moment or even later? And what about your gut feeling as you watched the video? Did you weep? Did you ball up your fists in anger?
- Alter our own state. Think carefully about inducing in ourselves the state that is best suited for the task at hand. Including engaging in brisk exercise before sitting down to learn something new. Spicy food. Move hands and bodies when seeking to understand a spatial concept. Go for a walk or go camping for a couple of days.
- Take measures to re-embody information. Reembody the information we think about instead of trying to disengage thinking from the body. Use your interoceptive signals: follow your gut.
- Whenever possible, take measures to re-spatialize the information we think about. We inherited a brain that was built to pick a path through a landscape and to find the way back home. Does this make you think of escape room exercises? Or sketch-noting? There’s probably a reason those connections may pop into your thinking.
- Take measures to re-socialize the information we think about. Don’t keep your internalized conversation hidden. Conversations in the real world, exchanging stories, and even having (non-violent) arguments with people trigger interoceptive signals that may help guide decisions .If we only consider the internal patter we may be limiting the signals or substituting fake ones. We are social creatures, and our thinking benefits from bringing other people into our train of thought.
- Manage our thinking by generating cognitive loops. Paul quotes Andy Clark: “When computer scientists develop artificial intelligence systems, they don’t design machines that compute for a while, print out the results, inspect what they have produced, add some marks in the margin, circulate copies among colleagues, and then start the process again. That’s not how computers work—but it's how we work.”
“Learning to extend the mind should be an element of everyone’s education.”
—Annie Murphy Paul
She goes on to say that the extended mind is not taught in any school or in any workplace training. So far, it’s something that people are left to figure out on their own. Not everyone succeeds fully at this. As designers of systems intended to support learning, we could help everyone do this better by applying what Annie Murphy Paul has documented, analyzed, and summarized in The Extended Mind.