I recently finished one of the more remarkable books I’ve read in a long time: The Extended Mind – The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain, by Annie Murphy Paul. This is a well-researched (over 250 journal citations) yet very approachable book that goes far beyond the usual self-help advice to improve blood flow and chemicals in the brain, instead focusing on how the brain actively uses the external environment as part of the thinking and learning process. If I had any single complaint, it’s that she does a bit too much “brain function trivia” especially in the latter sections.
Paul’s overarching point is that we need to break away from the traditional neurocentric “brainbound” perspective that all thinking happens in the brain, and begin considering the brain as a “magpie” – creating tools and fashioning nests from materials found around it. There’s considerable multi-disciplinary science around this new perspective, which is becoming actionable in tools such as Roam Research and Obsidian.
The following is a summary of what I believe are some key, actionable points. I’d encourage you to consider these alongside the power of going to the gemba and how we teach and learn – just for starters.
Thinking With Our Bodies (Embodied Cognition)
Sensations: Part of Embodied Cognition is the highly neglected sense, not sight, sound, smell etc. but interoception, the sensing of internal bodily sensation. Performative expertise includes interoceptive expertise – recognizing more subtly and responding more rapidly to feelings inside your body as our perform your task.
Paul dives right into the use of interoceptive faculties supporting thinking – what most of us know as “gut feel.” Turns out that this is often how the brain communicates pattern recognition faster and more effectively than with traditional thought. She gives the example of how the best stock traders are hyper aware of changes in physical sensation, and use them to make rapid time-sensitive trades when their brain recognizes and opportune pattern. This has also been shown to reduce general bias in decision making.
People who practice the “body scan” form of meditation are especially proficient in using their interoceptive faculties. How many of you can sense your heartbeat without touching your wrist or neck? It turns out about 50% of us can, and we’re surprised when we learn that others (like our spouses!) can’t – and vice versa.
Movement: Humans evolved to think best while moving – while chasing prey or eluding predators. However now most of us think while sitting at a desk. This goes beyond just improving blood flow via exercise to actually augmenting cognitive activity. Contrary to what most of us think, fidgeting may actually be a good thing, a method the body uses to maintain attention and improve cognitive ability while sitting still.
This concept has been put into practical use in classrooms that use standing desks, and then taken to another level by using movement to engage with concepts being taught – such as experiencing torque. Paul also makes the point that exercising first thing in the morning, and experiencing the residual cognitive effects, is better than exercising at the end of the day and wasting that improvement.
Gestures: We think of gestures as an aid to communicating information, and they are if done effectively. For example, simple “beat gestures” – the fairly irrelevant ones performed by presenters who have been told to “move your hands,” are just marginally effective. The best communicators go a step further to use specific, relevant gestures to convey additional information about a concept. Gestures appear to prime the brain’s auditory cortex for meaning so that spoken words are then better understood and remembered.
Learning and using gestures also help us think. One example the author provided is how even non-deaf students trained on how to communicate using American Sign Language can understand and process complex concepts better than other students. Another: we’ve all heard about the spatial thinking gap between young boys and girls – in reality this may be a non-gender “gesture gap” as hand movements are accepted and encouraged with boys while sometimes deemed not prim and proper with girls. (hooo boy, that may get controversial!)