This week’s conversation is with Annie Murphy Paul, an acclaimed science writer. 

A graduate of Yale University and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, she is currently a Learning Sciences Exchange Fellow at New America.

She is a recipient of the Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Journalism Fellowship, the Spencer Education Journalism Fellowship, and the Bernard L. Schwartz Fellowship at New America. 

Annie’s TED Talk titled “What We Learn Before We’re Born” has been viewed more than 2.6 million times and her latest book, The Extended Mind: The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain, offers a new view on how our minds work and how we can think better. 

In this conversation, we dive into her key findings and insights on, “The Extended Mind.” 

“The mind is much more than we think. The mind extends out from the brain, through the body, below the neck, and out into the world, our surroundings, our environment.”

In This Episode:

“The Extended Mind,” and why she wrote it

I am grateful to my dad for [letting me question everything]. He died about eight years ago. But I’m grateful to him that my questions were not quashed. They were invited and welcomed. And I do think of myself as having a very, as I said bookish kind of living in my head kind of childhood and young adulthood. And so, the book that I wrote, The Extended Mind, is actually about coming out of your head and living in your body and being aware of the space you’re in and your connections with other people. So, I kind of think it was the book that I needed to write. It was the book, the things that I needed to teach myself.

What is the extended mind?

The conventional understanding is that mind and brain are identical. That they’re contiguous, that the mind is the brain. That the mind is contained within the brain. And what the extended mind, the theory of the extended mind says is no, the mind is much bigger than that. The mind extends out from the brain, through the body, below the neck, and out into the world, our surroundings, our environment. And into the relationships that we have with other people. And that’s where thinking is happening. That’s where the magic is happening. Not in here, but out here. It’s really, to me, profound and transformative kind of idea that can really change how you see yourself and others in the world.

The brain is limited

Well just as an overall thing for your listeners to remember, I would want them to know that they have access right now to so many avenues and resources to think better. And that they may be constrained right now by misunderstandings of how thinking works, and that there’s a way to escape that conventional limitation. And to take advantage of all these outside the brain resources that are really our heritage as human beings. It’s our own culture and our own society that has placed these limits on us that tell us that the brain is what does all the work and that the body has nothing to contribute to intelligent thinking.

Gestures are a potent tool for communication

Gesture, for example, gesture is not just a tag-along to speech. It’s actually the case that our gestures anticipate what we’re thinking and what we’re going to say, by a few milliseconds. Such that, by the time we’ve said something, our hand gestures are already conveying that information. Often, our most advanced, our newest and most cutting-edge ideas, they show up first in our gestures and then that informs our own thinking… Susan Goldin-Meadow is a leading researcher in gesture. She has shown that, for example, when children are wrestling with learning a new concept, often, an understanding of the concept will show up first in their hands. Even as what they’re saying reflects that old, outdated assumption.

Getting out of your mind

We have this bias in our culture, that real geniuses, real smart people do it all in their head. When really, the more you can externalize the thinking process, whether it’s gestures or a model that you’re actually able to physically manipulate, that’s actually what experts do. That’s actually the root of experts’ mastery, is that they’re really good at thinking outside the brain. They’re really good at using their bodies, using spaces, using relationships, to help their thinking along.

Interoception

One thing I write about in the book is this capacity for interoception, which is the flow of sensations that are always there, from within our body. But, we’re really encouraged, especially in situations where we’re supposed to be thinking hard and working hard, to push those internal sensations away. Which, again, is a mistake, because they carry so much information and so much wisdom, if we tune into them.

Getting information through our bodies

I think the same capacity [as interoception] is much better known under the term gut feelings. What it describes is that sensation or feeling you have that is informative, that tells you something, but it doesn’t seem to come from your brain or from your conscious mind. That is, in fact, the case. That we take in so much information as we’re navigating through our everyday lives, that we couldn’t possibly process it all on a conscious level. But, we are taking in that information, we are noticing patterns and regularities in our experience. The way we get access to that information is through the body. That’s what’s happening when you have butterflies in your stomach or you feel your heart beating faster. That’s your body cluing you in to the fact that, “Here’s the situation that you’ve got to pay attention to.” It’s like the body tapping you on the shoulder or tugging you on the sleeve to give you a message. But, our culture is so brain-centric that we tend to push away those messages and assume that they don’t have any relevance.

The body scan technique

The Body Scan, which those of your listeners who practice mindfulness and meditation may have encountered. It’s about bringing open-minded, curious, non-judgmental attention to whatever is coming up. Whatever is being felt in the body. Usually, it is a formal practice that you would do before you proceed to do mindfulness meditation. But, what I’ve found and what researchers have found, is that it can also be done on a much more on-the-go way. In a much briefer kind of way, in the sense of just checking in with yourself. We’re so focused on the external world, we’re so focused on all this information that’s coming at us, that we often forget to check in with what’s going on inside. In addition to this very, very vivid and busy external world, there’s an internal world as well. We often are neglecting that internal world. What you want to do, ideally, is to be drawing from both of those spaces.

Extending our mind onto our devices

For example, if we put something in Google calendar, our computer won’t misremember it as being Thursday instead of Wednesday. Computers are better than us, better than our own brains at doing certain things like keeping information, preserving information in that original state. Whereas our own minds are amazing at sort of elaborating and transforming things and changing them into new ideas, combining ideas to create something new. And so as much as possible, we want to delegate the routine stuff to our machines, to our technology, freeing up bandwidth for the stuff that only humans can do. Having the big ideas, the creative ideas, making the connection. So that’s the most effective way to use our devices.

Physical spaces to help extend our minds

There is the space of ideas, which is what I mean when I talk about getting stuff out of your head, ideas and information out of your head and onto physical space. Whether that’s a giant whiteboard or a bunch of post-it notes that you can actually manipulate as if they’re physical objects or navigate through as if it’s a three dimensional landscape. Those are all things that are brains do really effortlessly and easily, and it draws on these embodied resources that come so naturally to us that we use so effectively, but that don’t even get activated if we keep all that information and all those ideas inside our head. But I also mean literally physical space as in spending lots of time outdoors. Because it turns out that being indoors and focusing very intently on the kind of concepts and symbols that make up most of our work is very draining to our attentional systems. Whereas going outside and having that kind of pleasantly diverting experience of just looking here and there and not having that really intense draw down on your attention, that restores your attentional faculties. So then you can go back to your office with greater focus and greater attentional ability.

The sweet-spot for our brain? The outdoors

Human beings evolved in the outdoors. This life we live where we’re indoors, inside buildings or inside our cars 90% of the time, that is a very recent development if you look at the whole span of human history. So our perceptual faculties are tuned to what we see in the organic world, in the natural world. And a lot of the sharp edges and loud sounds and fast moving objects that we confront, like in an urban setting, those are stressful. They put a real stress on our nervous system, and being outside is really kind of the sweet spot for our brain. It’s very easy for our brains to process that information. And what our brains find easy to process, we generally find pleasant. So that’s why when we go outside, most of us feel a kind of lifting of our mood every time we just step out the door.

Lean into your social connections, in any environment

I find it really interesting that in our culture, in our society, we tend to separate social life from the life of the mind. Or our workplace or our professional lives, they’re different and they’re even at odds. We might think of having a drink after work, but then when we’re actually at work we need to focus and turn off that social part of our brain… humans are fundamentally social creatures. We’re social all the time, not just during happy hour. And so the more we can harness our really powerful social brains in the service of thinking and learning and doing our work, the more effective we can be. So social activities like telling stories or debating other people or teaching other people, those activate cognitive processes that remain dormant when we’re just thinking alone by ourselves. So I think we should bring a lot more of our social selves into our work.

Break your day up

Brain bound, which is a word the philosopher Andy Clark uses that I really like… the brain bound notion of how you get work done is that you sit there until you finish. You keep working your brain. And a lot of us have operated that way during the pandemic because we’ve been at home, we haven’t been commuting, we don’t have coworkers around to chat with. And so we just sit there and we work, and I think the limitations of that approach have become apparent over the last 18 months. So it can seem counterintuitive, but to take breaks, and breaks of a particular kind, can make you more productive. And breaks of a particular kind where you’re tuning into your body, having an experience with nature, an encounter with nature, or connecting with another person. Making sure those things happen, that’s how I try to structure my work day. So that I’m not just using my brain for hours on end, but I’m breaking it up with these specific kinds of experiences.

How leaders can utilize the extended mind

The extended mind proposes a new role for leaders and managers, that they’re really situation creators. They’re creators of settings and environments where people can do their best thinking. And a situation like that, one that is most amenable to intelligent thinking, I think would make lots of space for physical activity, would allow people to take those moments to check in with their interceptive selves, would have lots of light and fresh air and access to the outdoors, and would also make space for social activity. People engage, again we’re so fundamentally and naturally social, people engage in activities like storytelling and teaching other people just when they’re given space to do so. They don’t even really need to be instructed to do that, they just need space and time and the understanding that those things will actually make everybody more productive and more effective. It’s not at all a waste of time, quite the opposite.

The inequality of extended thinking

One thing I became very aware of while writing this book was how much the richness of the raw materials that we have to think with, how much that informs how well we’re able to think. And that’s not something we take into account in our current system where we judge people and we rank people based on supposedly what they’re doing up here with their heads, when really so much of their performance has to do with their access to rich materials with which to think. So, to me, this is the new kind of frontier of equality and inequality to say, “Well really, what materials do people have to think with?” And isn’t it the case that there’s huge disparities in our culture and in the raw materials with which people have to think with.

Disrupting your narrative

The theme of all of my work has been, you are not who your society or your culture tells you you are. There are lots of pressures and forces and incentives to tell you who you are so that you’ll be a better consumer, or a better worker, or fit into society’s idea of what a human should be – but it’s your job in the biggest, broadest sense, to figure out who you really are.

 

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Author at The Extended Mind |

Annie Murphie Paul is an acclaimed science journalist who contributes to Scientific American, the New York Times, Time, Slate, and many other publications.