ANNIE MURPHY PAUL is a journalist and author who writes about the biological and social sciences. Her books include Origins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of our Lives, The Cult of Personality Testing, and The Extended Mind: The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain. In this interview by UDAY KUMAR, she speaks about her latest book, and the implications the extended mind has for children’s development and how we learn.
Q: I want to congratulate you on The Extended Mind, because this topic is not for the faint-hearted. The more I read, the more I feel the pains and the tribulations you have gone through to stitch the whole story together and make sure it holds. How did you come across this? What gave you the signal that this is it?
AMP: It was a long and winding road, as books sometimes are. I started out with the idea of writing about the science of learning. I focused on that in my magazine journalism for a while. It actually pretty closely followed the contours of my own life, because I had done the research and recording for Origins when I was pregnant with my second son. Then, when my sons were older and went to school, I became very interested in their learning, the instructions their teachers were giving them, how that all worked. I knew I wanted to write something about the science of learning, but I couldn’t seem to find a big idea that would pull it all together. The more I explored the science of learning, the more it felt like a collection of techniques and methods that were very useful, but there wasn’t a big idea for me as a writer, which I need to get excited and pull me through all that hard work.
So I started widening the range of things I was reading, including venturing into philosophy and cognitive science, and that’s how I came across the 1998 article by Clark and Chelmer on the idea of the “extended mind.” I don’t remember it being a lightbulb moment, but it eventually came to be the idea that pulled together all the threads. I felt they were in some way related, but I really could not put my finger on how. Things like embodied cognition and situated cognition, the way the physical place affects the way we think, and then socially-distributed cognition, the idea that we think with other people. All those things seem to be modelling how thinking happens, as opposed to the conventional idea that it all happens in the head.
But until I encountered the idea of the extended mind, I didn’t have a name for what exactly I was talking about. And then from there, I wouldn’t say it all fell into place, but it gave the book the spine that I needed to string all those different pieces together.
Q: How long was the project overall?
AMP: It’s hard to say, because the science of learning stuff kind of morphed into what I was writing about the extended mind; the science of learning material flowed into the extended mind. I would say I was working on the book itself probably for five years, but I was writing articles, doing research, and reporting on the science of learning for five years before that. That really informed what I eventually wrote in The Extended Mind.
Q: It shows! I am halfway through your book right now, and I am taking my time because I am also looking up the research studies that you are referring to, and in many ways it has made me a student of the subject. In Heartfulness there is the idea of moving from thinking to feeling – the journey of consciousness moves from thinking to feeling to being to a state of non-being. So I got onto your concept of the extended mind immediately. This is brilliant coming from the angle of science. In your book, there is a sentence, “The future lies in thinking outside the brain.” Do you want to talk a little about that – what you see from that standpoint when you talk about the future?
AMP: Yes. I think I wrote that the future lies in thinking outside the brain in the context of how very complex our culture has become. As humans, we have created this incredibly complex culture and society, which in many ways is beyond the capacity of our biological brains to handle. We are interacting with this 21st century world, with all these enormous challenges and complexities, but we are still using our Stone Age brains, which evolved for very different kinds of purposes. Our brains didn’t evolve to deal with abstract concepts so much as they evolved to move the body, manipulate physical objects, relate to other people, and navigate through space.
So these are the things the brain does easily, effortlessly and well. The more we can leverage those natural human strengths in the service of the things we ask the brain to do, at school, at work, and in our daily lives, the better those activities will go. But we have this bias – I really think it’s a prejudice – against thinking outside the brain. We almost fetishize the brain as a sacred organ, when it really has these built-in limits that are just a product of its status as a biologically-evolved organ, and they are shared by all of us. We are obsessed with individual differences and intelligence, when the main thing we should really be focusing on are the limits that are common to all of our brains, and thinking about how to transcend those limits, because we really do have to meet the challenges of the moment.
I am thinking about climate change and political polarization. These huge challenges we have are so complex, and we need to meet these moments as individuals and as a society, and the biological brain is not really up to that job. So thinking outside the brain, drawing in these extra neural resources, and using them skillfully is our best shot. It’s humanity’s best shot to tackle the serious problems that face us.
Thinking outside the brain,
drawing in these extra neural resources,
and using them skillfully is our best shot.
It’s humanity’s best shot to tackle
the serious problems that face us.
Q: I intuitively get it. I think it is something we have lost over time. It comes to us naturally if we are receptive enough, and that’s where you talk about the whole idea of interoception, and how the body is actually communicating with the brain.
In your work, as you were looking at and reading some of these things, was there any research or idea around the interplay of the heart and the mind? I am not talking about the pump, the organ, but the field of operation that we keep harmonizing with and with which we achieve a state of flow.
AMP: Yes. That’s how I tried to structure the book. Extending with the body, then space, and our relationships with other people, I see it like a set of concentric circles that are rippling ever outward.
Q: As a reader, how do I apply some of these basics as a busy professional in consulting, who has billed all the hours and still has work left to do? Do you have any tips you want to share with a working person on how to extend the mind?
AMP: Let’s start with that one thought you just mentioned – interoception, the capacity for sensing the internal signals of our bodies. I think we have this notion in our society that to do difficult mental work means to push the body aside, to push it out of the picture, just be a brain working at a desk, at a screen. It is a mistake to think that that is how the best kind of thinking happens. It’s actually cutting out a huge source of human intelligence.
What I would recommend for that consultant, to help with his busy schedule, is rather than powering through and gritting your teeth and ignoring the body, take a moment to settle back into your body, and remember you have a body. Tune into what your body is telling you. That can be a source of really valuable information that you will be missing out on if you are not in touch with it.
In the book, I describe using a meditation exercise, the body scan, to pay close, non-judgmental and open-minded attention to all those sensations that are arising in the body all the time, but which we often in our busy-ness ignore or push away. Pay attention to those signals and, over time, you can learn what they are telling you, and how they can guide your behavior.
It doesn’t have to take long. It’s just a matter of remembering to do that – checking in with your body rather than acting as if you are just a head, from the neck up.
Experts are the ones who are out there
mucking around in the real world,
getting feedback in the real world,
trying out new things,
and figuring out how things work.
That is another type of thinking outside the brain:
where you’re not doing it all in here the head,
you’re doing it out in the world.
Q: I like that, and the body awareness exercise you share in the book. In Heartfulness, we have some of these exercises like guided relaxation that we teach to children. I had my kids do this through the pandemic before they started school, because they were not used to so much screen time. Also, observing which nostril is dominant at any point in time and seeing how it switches.
I also read the part in your book where you talk about expertise – how being an expert is not just about mastering those 10,000 hours. Experts are actually extending, trying more, tracking more. While we are breaking down the holy altars of the brain, can we also break down the concept of expertise?
AMP: I definitely see that connection. A word that I really like, which was coined by one of the originators of the theory of the extended mind, Andy Clark, is “brain-bound.” We have this brain-bound approach to work and school, and also to expertise. We think about expertise as an individual putting in those 10,000 hours to become an expert, and there’s very little reference to how, for example, nobody becomes an input by themselves. It’s quintessentially a social process, and that’s something I write in the book: People like physics graduates or doctors-in-training become experts by interacting with others and being socialized into their fields. It’s true of all of us.
I mentioned those two because I cite some studies in regard to them specifically. We think of experts as doing it all in their heads, we think of experts as knowing exactly what to do and doing it, and it is very clean and efficient. But actually, experts are the ones who are out there mucking around in the real world, getting feedback in the real world, trying out new things, and figuring out how things work. That is another type of thinking outside the brain: where you’re not doing it all in here the head, you’re doing it out in the world.
The more we can incorporate
these other aspects of the body,
of movement, and of social interaction,
the more we can pull those into academics,
and leverage them to make
learning more effective.
When you think about an expert designer or architect, they’re often making models of the project they’re working on or the problem they’re trying to solve, and interacting with that model, moving their body around the model. They’re not doing it all in their head. Artists and designers often say that their best ideas emerge in the process of sketching, and drawing, and iterating their ideas on paper. It’s not as if they have the idea inside their head and they just dictate it. It happens in the process of doing the work itself. I think we have some mistaken ideas, some brain-bound ideas about what expertise is and how it works, and if we want to become experts it would be a good idea to revise those.
Q: I completely agree. There is also this element of intellectual humility that experts have. They’re willing to accept what they don’t know and listen. I think it is also a sign of the extended mind, where the mind has factored in the humility of “What I know is less than what I don’t know.” I think that’s where experts keep growing, while others maybe taper off over time.
Now, extending the idea of expertise, that instead of people thinking better they extend their minds better, how do we teach our children these skills? Not in terms of a policy, but from what you see, from your research, are there any thoughts on how to teach kids, how to design their work spaces?
AMP: I think there are so many implications for what we could be doing right now with our kids, with our students. You mentioned earlier that you tell your kids about tuning into their bodies before school starts. Scientists have found all these individual differences in how people are attuned to their internal signals, and the reason those individual differences arise is because of differences in the kinds of messaging children receive from their caregivers. “Is it okay to listen to my body? Is it okay to take those messages seriously, or am I supposed to ignore those messages and pretend they don’t exist?”
So encouraging our kids to tune into their bodies is certainly one thing I have taken away from the research, in terms of what I do with my own kids.
I’ve also stressed to them the importance of movement and gesture. Again, we have this idea that thinking and academic work happens when students are sitting quietly at their desks, when really the human brain and body evolved to move, and there are so many ways movement can enhance thinking. Likewise, being outside, often we can combine those two things: movement and being outdoors. Those two things can work together to really replenish depleted stores of attention and executive function. It’s a lot to ask kids to sit inside hour after hour, focusing on these things that they are not necessarily naturally interested in.
The more we can incorporate these other aspects of the body, of movement, and of social interaction, the more we can pull those into academics, and leverage them to make learning more effective. I talk about thinking with other people, and thinking with peers, about teaching others, debating, and storytelling. These are all ways we can leverage children’s natural sociability, social instincts and interest in the social world in the service of what we want them to learn.
To be continued.
Interviewed by UDAY KUMAR
Illustrations by ANANYA PATEL
Annie Murphy Paul
Annie is an acclaimed science writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, the Boston Globe, Scientific American, Slate, Time magazine, and The Best American Science Writing. She is the author of Origins and The Cult of Personality, and her TED Talk has been viewed by more than 2.6 million people. A graduate... Read more