Annie Murphy Paul’s new book, The Extended Mind: The power of thinking outside the brain, is an enlightening exploration of how we use extra-neural resources to “focus more intently, comprehend more deeply, and create more imaginatively.” Drawing from theories and research around embodied cognition, situated cognition, and distributed cognition, Paul explains and illustrates the ways that our bodies, our surroundings, and our relationships play a huge role in facilitating knowledge and skill acquisition and ensuring we have access to more than what we know in our brains.
In fact, Paul contends that thinking of the brain as the sole container of knowledge is not only untrue but dangerously limiting. “The gap between what our biological brains are capable of, and what modern life demands, is large and getting larger each day,” she says. Therefore, we must learn to use extra-neural resources to expand our capacity. While the use of technology to expand our capacity might come immediately to mind, there are other, more flexible resources available to be the locus of thinking, recall, and knowing, and to be primary aids in these processes.
Our current metaphors for thinking and learning – that the mind is like a computer, or like a muscle, don’t go far enough in exploring how the mind works. Murphy suggests that the mind is perhaps more like a magpie – “fashioning their finished products from the materials around them, weaving the bits and pieces they find into trains of thought.” The capacity of our minds is extended by what we can do with and sense from our bodies, from the environment around us, and from the people we think with and work with. Thought is “an act of continuous assembly and reassembly that draws on resources external to the brain.”
The Extended Mind is full of important ideas backed by research studies and illustrated by intriguing stories. You’ll find yourself relating to the ways we reach beyond our brains for thinking and learning, and you’ll be struck by the implications when you put it all together.
In some ways, the analysis is overwhelming, full of new concepts and ideas to consider about how the mind works. Paul organizes the book around thinking with our bodies, thinking with our surroundings, and thinking with our relationships. Some of the key points are about how these extra-neural resources help us to comprehend and learn. Other points are about how they help us express and communicate ideas, and think out loud. There are also implications around how we store what we know to make it accessible for later use. It can be hard to keep up, and I found myself highlighting, taking notes, and reinterpreting implications – it’s that rich and important to understand. I’ll share just a few of the key points here.
How we use our bodies to extend our minds. You may already be aware that we think better when we move; as Kierkegaard said “I have walked myself into my best thoughts.” That’s a truth I have come to understand through my own experience. The movement of our bodies is also sometimes crucial to interpreting and expressing what we know, in helping us to wrestle with thoughts and articulate ideas. (Notice how thoughts are often expressed through gesture before the words come to mind.) Talking with our hands, indeed, with our whole bodies, is a way of offloading cognitive processes and finding ways to make sense of information. More importantly, our bodies play a role in absorbing and interpreting information and communicating signals to our conscious minds. Saying that we feel things in our gut is quite accurate – often our bodies sense and interpret patterns in our environment before our minds are able to catch up.
How we use our surroundings to extend our minds. Situated cognition theorists point out that our thinking is tied to the environment and the context in which we think. Our surroundings impact how we interpret information and how we remember it. The environment also impacts the ease of thinking and learning – natural settings and buildings with design inspired by nature help us to think better; an environment of distraction makes thinking more difficult. Studies have shown that popular open plan offices are detrimental to thinking and creativity, contrary to how they were positioned. We’re better off in environments which we can personalize, where we can decorate in ways that underscore and bolster our sense of self and our feelings of belonging. Most interesting to me is the way we use space to externalize our thinking. Using large boards and entire walls to map out our thinking has been shown to be better than doing the same kind of activity on a computer screen. Writing is helpful as well, which is perhaps why taking handwritten notes and scribbling ideas in a notebook has proven to be beneficial to my own thinking.
How we use our relationships to extend our minds. Social learning theory provides insight into how we learn in interaction with others, and the mechanisms there are interesting. “When we think socially, we think differently – and often better – than when we think non-socially.” We do well to study together, train together, debate ideas with one another, and share personal stories. There is bonus value in learning, thinking and acting together, “so closely that [our] brains and bodies fall into a joint rhythm.” This is a different concept than the wisdom of crowds from which you can gain a diversity of inputs. In addition to relying on one another to learn and interpret the world, distributed learning research shows that people come to depend on others to have and bring to bear knowledge that they don’t have. In a transactive memory system, knowing who to ask is an acceptable extension for knowing in our own brains. And technology is not as useful as you might think for connecting us; as we all know, there are some ways in which the intermediation of technology can be hurtful to the ability to engage with one another.
“As long as we settle for thinking inside the brain, we’ll remain bound by the limits of that organ. But when we reach outside it with intention and skill our thinking can be transformed. It can become as dynamic as our bodies, as airy as our spaces, as rich as our relationships – a capacious as the whole wide world.”
~ Annie Murphy Paul
The Extended Mind makes clear just how much our ability to think is dependent on extra-neural resources. It is an important resource for all learning professionals. The key points above just scratch the surface of what is reported and explained in the book. It contains quite a bit of nuance about the extended mind that defies quick summary but is worth considering as guidance for designing learning strategies and work environments.
I study and teach learning theory so many of these concepts were not new to me. I was intrigued to learn about specific research and implications, and the book gave me food for thought in terms of how I organize my own learning and how I design my courses. The details are quite fascinating and provide a new perspective I hadn’t considered.
I would have liked to see more at the summary and theoretical level in addition to all the individual research study reports and implications. There is more to embodied, situated, and distributed learning than is captured here, and it would have been good to see some discussion of connectivist and connected learning theory as well. And it seems odd to not highlight how technology extends the mind even if there are caveats to consider in this area.
I also plan to reorganize the ideas to remind myself how the extended mind informs different parts of the thinking process – the extensions that create an environment conducive to learning and thought, the extensions that enrich thought and learning processes, the extensions that help to express, organize, and communicate thinking, the extensions that store what we know for use later, etc. I want to make a list of the specific guidance being offered (there is a lot of it) and translate that for my design checklist so I can be sure to implement these ideas in my work. The exciting thing is that there is enough rich material in this book to make that effort worthwhile.
The Extended Mind is an important contribution toward our understanding of how the mind works and what is necessary to increase out capabilities for addressing 21st century challenges. It pulls together a vast and diverse body of research to help us to learn better and think more clearly. Highly recommended.
I’m chagrined that I left out Annie Murphy Paul’s important point about the implications of the extended mind as it relates to equity. It was well captured by another reviewer, Matthew Hutson from the Wall Street Journal.
Captured in Annie Murphy Paul’s Twitter feed:
“In his review of THE EXTENDED MIND in the Wall Street Journal today, writer Matthew Hutson singles out one particular theme of the book, and I’m so glad he did. That theme concerns the fact that the raw materials of intelligent thought are by no means equitably distributed.
Hutson’s conclusion reads:
“By removing the brain from the vat, Ms. Paul writes, thinking ‘can become as dynamic as our bodies, as airy as our spaces, as rich as our relationships—as capacious as the whole wide world.’ And if you argue that only the privileged have access to untouched nature, large monitors, accomplished mentors and abundant classroom supplies, well, Ms. Paul has beat you to the punch. Seeing smarts not as sheer brainpower but as a mingling of mind and milieu, she suggests, might prompt us to look for ways to improve the surroundings and supports available to those less fortunate than we.”
While writing the book, this is the tension that kept emerging for me: We treat intelligence as innate, internal, and individual, producing a blind spot for all the ways that external and collective resources (again, not equitably shared!) allow intelligence to come into being.”
Near the end of The Extended Mind, Paul wrote. “If our ability to think intelligently is shaped so profoundly by the availability of extrra-neural resources, how then can we continue to justify their extraordinarily inequitable distribution?” Well said. The digital divide is not the only thing we should be concerned about.
The Extended Mind: the power of thinking outside the brain.
By Annie Murphy Paul (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, June 2021)
Thanks to Annie Murphy Paul for the advance copy for review.