In The Extended Mind: The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain, acclaimed science writer Annie Murphy Paul explodes the myth that the brain is an all-powerful, all-purpose thinking machine that works best in silence and isolation.
We are often told that the human brain is an awe-inspiring wonder, but its capacities are remarkably limited and specific. Humanity has achieved its most impressive feats only by thinking outside the brain: by “extending” the brain’s power with resources borrowed from the body, other people, and the material world. Annie’s research tells the stories of scientists and artists, authors and inventors, leaders, and entrepreneurs—Jackson Pollock, Charles Darwin, Jonas Salk, Friedrich Nietzsche, Watson and Crick, among others—who have mastered the art of thinking outside the brain. It also explains how every one of us can do the same, tapping the intelligence that exists beyond our heads—in our bodies, our surroundings, and our relationships. She shows how a host of “extra-neural” resources—the feelings and movements of our bodies, the physical spaces in which we learn and work, and the minds of those around us—can help us focus more intently, comprehend mre deeply, and create more imaginatively.
In this interview, I speak to Annie Murphy Paul on her ground-breaking work exploring how our minds work, how extra-neural resources play a role in our thinking, and how understanding the extended mind can give us ground-breaking insights into harnessing our potential.
Q: Why do we need to understand how we think?
[Annie Murphy Paul]: We need to understand how we think, so we can think better. I think most of us feel like we would like to think better. We forget things, we find it hard to concentrate, we don’t perform as well as we would like… Beyond that, it’s important to understand how we think because it’s a clue to who we are as people, as a species. To understand how thinking works beyond our immediate experience of it is not self-evident or obvious- and we have a lot to learn.
The better we understand how we think, the better we understand who we are.
[Vikas: What about the cultural notions of how we speak about thought, and mind?]
[Annie Murphy Paul]: We all have culturally determined ideas about what thinking is, and I trace a lot of our own cultural ideas around this to the middle of the last century when computers were invented, and the cognitive revolution held computation as the central metaphor for how the brain works. We created the computer with our brains, and then we turned it around and said, ‘oh, are brains are like this thing we created!’ The ‘brain as a computer metaphor’ is so prevalent that it’s become part of culture, it’s embedded in our language and other assumptions. It is however, a very limiting metaphor. The brain is not like a computer. It’s a biological organ which evolved to do certain things very well like moving, sensing, forming relationships to small groups of people and navigating through three-dimensional landscapes. It didn’t evolve to think about abstract, counter-intuitive or symbolic concepts – yet that forms much of what we do every day.
We need to understand what the brain really is and what the nature of the brain really is, so we can understand why it fails us sometimes, why it has the particular deficits and limits it does, and how we can transcend those limits by reaching outside the brain and bringing in all these other rich resources that can help us think better.
Q: How significant is the notion of thinking outside our brains?
[Annie Murphy Paul]: Extra-neural thinking has been right there in front of us all along, but we didn’t quite recognise it for what it was. Scientists, artists, entrepreneurs, leaders and inventors have always thought outside their brain in the sense of using the world to improve and enhance their thinking. Because we are such a brain centric society however, we need to realise that we are – as the philosopher, Andy Clark coined- brainbound. We have a blind spot for all the ways in which people use spaces, bodies and other people to do the thinking. This is the secret history of how great thinking has actually happened, and by understanding it, we can extend our own minds.
As soon as we externalise the contents of our minds, and we turn them into physical objects that we can manipulate, landscapes that we can navigate through, when we pass through the body by bringing in movement and gesture or when we pass through the brains of others, our ideas have a chance to change, evolve, and collide with each other in fruitful ways that simply wouldn’t happen if they were sealed inside our heads.
Q: How should we best understand how our body relates to our thinking?
[Annie Murphy Paul]: We tend to think that all thinking goes on from the neck-up and that’s just not the case. When we’re attuned to our bodies- when we can intentionally employ them from the purposes of thinking- we can really extend our minds with our bodies, and there are different ways to do that.
We have a faculty called interoception, which is the ability to sense our internal signals and cues. That’s a fancy scientific term, but we all know this by the phrase gut feel. We have feelings that don’t seem to emanate from our brains, but which are often true, accurate or helpful in some way. That is the body signalling to us, tugging on our sleeve, to alert us to this wealth of non-conscious information that we’re always collecting. We’re always noting- and taking note- of regularities and patterns in our experience. The amount of information we’re taking in is so voluminous, that we can’t be conscious of it all the time. The way we become conscious of these patterns is when the body alerts us to them. That’s when we get that feeling of nervousness or excitement. That’s the body alerting us to information that we need to attend to. The more attuned we are to those internal signals, the more we can make use of that information.
We live in this brainbound society that tells us to ignore the body- that’s really not a very fruitful way to approach it.
Expertise- in a sense- is non-conscious knowledge that our body alerts us to. The research would support this as experts are very good at tuning in to what their bodies have to tell them because they have such a well developed wealth of expertise that it becomes automatic, and non-conscious. These bodily shortcuts let us know when things are going well- or wrong.
Q: How does the other relate to our thinking?
[Annie Murphy Paul]: Our brainbound society emphasises individualism, and we love to celebrate the genius or leader who did things all on their own. We know however, this is never the case. We do things in concert with other people, but we’re not trained or educated in how to think in groups – so it often happens in a very haphazard and ineffective way. That’s why so many of us think group work is onerous or unsatisfying- we bring the habits and practices of individual thinking into groups but really we need to have more structured interactions so that we can bring the resources of the group to bear on problems that we’re trying to solve, and to really extend our minds with other people, creating a group mind that’s bigger and better than the sum of its parts.
We need to recognise how fruitful those loops are that we create between- and among- people. We so often see social life and being sociable as something apart, and almost intellectually opposed, to cognitive work. When you go to school or work, you put that social part of yourself aside, but really- sociability is such a strength of human beings. We’re fundamentally social creatures- and so the idea should be that we find ways to leverage our social nature in the service of learning, working, or doing things like storytelling, arguing, debating or teaching people. These are social activities that activate cognitive processes that allow us to think better- but which remain dormant if we’re only working in our own heads.
Q: How do our spaces relate to our thinking?
[Annie Murphy Paul]: A computer operates the same way no matter where it’s located. This is where the brain-computer metaphor falls down. We humans are exquisitely sensitive to context and we think differently depending on where we are. One of the clearest examples of that is that we think differently when we’re in nature versus built interiors or urban settings.
I often think about how we talk, think, and how our attention is used. We don’t spend enough time thinking about how to refill the attention tank. We don’t think of the supply side, versus the demand side of attention. One of the easiest and most effective ways to restore our attention is by spending time in nature which is filled with the kind of sensory information that our brains evolved to process. We process the information in nature fluently and effortlessly, and that allows our brains to take a break from this really hard-edged processing that we have to do in our work lives.
Q: How can we become less bound by our own brains?
[Annie Murphy Paul]: The body of research that has most affected my own practices is the idea of cognitive offloading; that we try to do too much in our own heads. It’s actually almost always good to externalize or offload our mental contents, spread them out in physical space and interact with them. It has a number of advantages and allows us to apply our senses to them. When we can see our ideas, manipulate them and speak to the information out loud, we get what psychologists call detachment gain. We put a little space between ourselves and our thoughts and it allows us to think differently.
We can see them, we can speak our ideas or the information out loud, we can manipulate them, we can get what psychologists call the detachment gain which is we put a little space between ourselves and our thoughts which allows us to think about them differently, and all those are processes that don’t happen when the ideas stay inside your brain.
Artists and designers don’t conceptualise ideas in their head before dictating to their hand how to draw. They see it as a conversation between the mind and the hand, the pencil and the paper. It’s the loop of externalising thoughts, bringing them back in, externalising and so on that is how new things get created.
Q: What do you hope your legacy will be?
[Annie Murphy Paul]: I think less about legacy, and more about questions that interest me that I want to pursue. If I had a legacy however, it would be to challenge this brainbound way of thinking and to expose the limits of how we think together with the vision, opportunity and potential that thinking outside the brain can give.
It’s an optimistic and inspiring vision of human potential.