Extending the Mind

This summer, I recommended to everyone I encountered that they take an hour and listen to this podcast conversation between Ezra Klein and Annie Murphy Paul about her new book The Extended Mind. The conversation has so much to say about how we shape our lives, workplaces, and schools that I immediately bought Paul’s book and began reading it.

My reading of the book got slowed down by the return to work, but I found it compelling, and to keep track of its most interesting insights, I put little Post-It notes at spots where my interest was piqued. I did not write anything on them, just plopped them onto the page and kept moving. Then, later, when I had finished reading the book, I went back and wrote notes on each of the Post-Its. (Since I put notes on nearly every page of the book, I needed some easy way to find the information I might want in the future.) Doing so required me to reread the passage I put the note on, and then to figure out what about it had caught my eye, then to come up with a few words to put on the note. This is generally how I annotate books I read, but in this case I was also, inadvertently, demonstrating a couple of the book’s principle ideas: most people learn and remember best when they can turn their knowledge into artifacts, give it some physical presence, and make their attention (and memory) loop through information recursively rather than trying to learn in a linear way.

Those little Post-It notes are, in fact, an extension of my mind.

Our brains are astoundingly powerful organs. For decades, if not centuries, scientists have tried to figure out what makes them so amazingly good at doing what they do. Brains are extremely good at, in Paul’s words, “sensing and moving the body, navigating through space, and connecting with other humans.” Recently, scientists have begun to look at something different: the brain’s limitations. “The human brain,” Paul writes, “is limited in its ability to pay attention, limited in its capacity to remember, limited in its facility with abstract concepts, and limited in its power to persist at a challenging task.” This is true even of the most astoundingly talented brains. Geniuses are not so much people with extraordinary brains as people who have found particularly good ways to work within their limitations and to extend their brain beyond itself.

Extending the brain means working toward those things brains are really good at while adjusting for the things brains tend to be limited by. What Paul shows, though, is that so many of the structures of our lives (including the physical structures) do quite the opposite. Too often, for instance, we ignore the brain’s embodiment. Too often, we privilege the idea of individual genius and miss the far greater potential for group genius. Too often, we create binaries that demand we be either social or private when, in fact, the best thinking requires the opportunity to be both. Additionally, we apply terribly inaccurate metaphors for how brains work, proposing that brains are like muscles or like computers, when they are not like either at all, and these metaphors lead us to work not with our brains but against them.

By working against our brains, we create workplaces, living situations, and classrooms that require us to put forth far more energy and effort than we would need if we designed with evidence-based knowledge of the brain (and its embodiment) rather than designing via myths and habits. Often, in a quest for productivity and efficiency, we make systems that work against both productivity and efficiency.

Consider:

Schools don’t teach students how to restore their depleted attention with exposure to nature and the outdoors, or how to arrange their study spaces so that they extend intelligent thought. Teachers and managers don’t demonstrate how abstract ideas can be turned into physical objects that can be manipulated and transformed in order to achieve insights and solve problems. Employees aren’t shown how the social practices of imitation and vicarious learning can shortcut the process of acquiring expertise. Classroom groups and workplace teams aren’t coached in scientifically validated methods of increasing the collective intelligence of their members. Our ability to think outside the brain has been left almost entirely uneducated and undeveloped.

(p. 4)

That might be a bit hyperbolic — I know of classes and workplaces in which some of those things are, indeed, taught, though perhaps not with the language here, and, importantly, not with the intention and clarity about how brains work. If these things are taught to students and workers, it’s because they have proved effective in the past, or they’ve been stumbled on as good practices. Paul’s point is that we shouldn’t need to stumble. We have piles of good research from the last few decades into how brains actually work. Or, if not how brains work (much remains mysterious!), what they like and don’t like.

Here, then, I will detail some — but far from all — of what Paul writes about in The Extended Mind, and at the end I will offer some ideas that particularly stood out for me when thinking about the context of schools and education. (So if you don’t want to read all the background, just skip to the end!)

photo by David Matos

Bodies with Knowledge

Brains don’t think as well in bodies sitting still as they do in bodies performing some sort of low-intensity motion. We know this intuitively — think of how many people, for instance, say they get their best ideas while walking — and yet so many classrooms and workplaces are designed to inihibit movement, designed on the premise that people think best while sitting still. Low-intensity movement improves attention and focus (as anybody who has used fidget toys during meetings knows), and yet we not only don’t design for it, we punish it. “Parents and teachers often believe they have to get kids to stop moving around before they can focus and get down to work,” Paul writes. But “a more constructive approach would be to allow kids to move around so that they can focus” (49).

High-intensity movement has its own value, including as preparation for significant mental work: “The best preparation for such (metaphorical) acts as wrestling with ideas or running through possibilities is to work up an (actual) sweat” (52). One of the values of significant physical assertion for our brains is that it stops us from (consciously) thinking. The body is demanding all your concentration, so you are not getting mentally depleted in the same way that, for instance, unfocused internet surfing depletes the brain even as it feels like the opposite of work. The problem is that activities like endlessly scrolling through social media feeds draw energy from the same parts of the brain as do more cognitively challenging tasks. If we “rest” via the internet and then return to work, we “resume our duties just as frazzled as before the pause, and maybe more so. Turning coffee breaks into what some public health experts call ‘movement breaks’ allows us to return to our work a bit smarter than when we left it” (52).

Small motions are so important that Paul devotes an entire chapter to the value of gestures. “Gestures,” she says, “don’t merely echo or amplify spoken language; they carry out cognitive and communicative functions that language can’t touch” (69). Gestures strengthen our ability to give form to thoughts, they increase the effectiveness of communication, they help groups understand each other, they create and direct attention.

Physicality is crucial for memory. Paul looks at some studies of how actors memorize lines, and the results confirmed my own theatre experience: it is vastly easier to remember your lines when you have rehearsed them on stage than when you just try to memorize them yourself. The addition of movement and gesture makes it much easier to recall blocks of text. The gestures don’t have to be illustrative, and there’s even demonstrated improval to memory when the intention to move is there without any accompanying movement. The body tells the brain: this is important. “Our natural egocentric bias,” Paul writes, “leads us to preferentially attend to and remember that information that we have connected in some way to ourselves: my intention, my body, my movement” (57).

Again and again, Paul shows that thinking doesn’t happen only in the brain — it happens throughout the whole body. Our bodies know things our brains do not bring to consciousness. She describes a fascinating experiment by Antonio Damasio’s team at the University of Southern California where participants’ bodies showed clear understanding of the patterns of reward in a card game without the participants themselves being conscious of any pattern at all. This is the basis of “gut instincts”. Paul shows research to consistently demonstrate that people with greater sensitivity to their bodies (particularly via interoception) are better able to use the knowledge their bodies produce. And this is not simply a talent, though some people are certainly better at it than others. It can be taught and strengthened via meditation, for instance.

This awareness of the body can help not only with knowledge but also with one of those things teachers keep saying they want to see in more students: resilience. Paul is no fan of the “growth mindset” or “grit” school of educational theory, which she believes is based on the misleading metaphor of the brain as a muscle. (The brain, Paul proposes, is more like a magpie than a muscle.) Paul tells the story of researchers who have studied extremely accomplished athletes, including the extraordinary long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad. These are people of impressive resilience, and their brains show it by responding in anticipation to stressors and then entering “a state of relative quiescence during and after the stressor.” People without such resilience respond in the opposite manner: “low levels of [brain] activity before a stressor, and high levels during and after the stressor. The self-management of these individuals is sloppy, all over the place, like poorly calibrated motors that leak power. They are brought up short by challenges, and then waste energy in the scramble to catch up” (35). The management of energy within bodies and minds is key to success and failure of most tasks, including thinking. Again and again, research shows people ignoring, overriding, or simply being unaware of their bodies, thus causing themselves unnecessary suffering. Researchers who have studied stock traders and soldiers have found consistent results: people who “pay close attention to their bodily sensations at the early stage of a challenge, when signs of stress are just beginning to accumulate” are less likely to be taken by surprise, less likely to overreact, less likely to waste energy (36).

For me, the insights about embodied thought and thinking in motion were among the most surprising, and in some ways most disconcerting, of the book. I am not a physical person — quite the opposite. I’ve often thought that if it were possible to just be a brain in a jar, I would be happy to be a brain in a jar. For me, physical sensation mostly runs on a spectrum from hideously painful to neutral. I have never had the experience of exercise being anything other than nauseating, and I find sweat to be repulsive. And yet I like thinking, and I cannot deny that the brain is deeply (obviously!) connected to and integral with the entire body, that thing I loathe.

As I resisted Paul’s insights on just how embodied thinking is, I wondered about something outside the scope of her book, which is neurodivergence. The Embodied Mind looks at a wide range of studies that all seem to search for the qualities, behaviors, and tendencies of a typical mind. The typical mind, like the typical body, is a statistical figment, an abstraction from tens, hundreds, thousands, and millions of individual minds and bodies, each atypical in its own way. What happens, for instance, to the extended mind of someone with significant physical limitations? (Stephen Hawking seems to have extended his mind pretty well.) A fascinating sequel to Paul’s book might be something along the lines of Oliver Sacks’s writings, a study of neurodivergence, atypicality, and what they can tell us about how we live, learn, and work. As fascinating as the similarities between brains are the differences.

Spaces for Thought

If, as Paul’s narrative of neuroscience shows, brains think not only beyond their own boundaries but also beyond the boundaries of our bodies, then the physical environments in which we think matter. This is true not only for the design of spaces, but also for the way those spaces interact with nature.

One of the most powerful insights of The Extended Mind is that we have built much of the world in a way that works against ourselves:

We’ve set up camp amid the high-rises and highways of our modern milieu, but our minds are not at ease in this habitat. The mismatch between the stimuli we evolved to process and the sights and sounds that regularly confront our senses has the effect of depleting our limited mental resources. We are left frazzled, fatigued, and prone to distraction, simply as a function of the hours we spend in a setting for which we are biologically ill-equipped

(p. 92)

Consider the open-plan office.

This is not a space for thinking, not a space for happy or efficient brains. The minimalist, repetitive, grey design removes the visual stimuli of nature, stimuli our brains are most comfortably attuned to, and which fit in a comfort zone between too little and too much stimulation (at least there are the windows to the far left). The lighting is monotone, unvarying, not natural enough, sapping energy and focus. There are no walls, not even any partitions between work spaces, which is fine for group work but disastrous for getting anything done individually — opportunities for privacy are crucial for any creative or complex thinking, and workers who never have stable space of their own are less productive, less confident, and less happy than workers who do.

And yet, Paul says, by the early years of this century, 70-80% of offices had an open-plan design. Why? Cost, for one thing. (Walls get expensive.) But even for offices where cost was no object, there were assumptions about how people work, assumptions about what promotes collaboration — assumptions that were not supported by research. What Paul shows is that productive, creative offices do indeed need open spaces within which people can encounter each other and work together, but they also need spaces for privacy, solitary reflection, and quiet. Moreover, these spaces need to be stable and able to be personalized because “when people occupy spaces that they consider their own, they experience themselves as more confident and capable. They are more efficient and productive. They are more focused and less distactible” (126). Employers that promote desk-jumping, moving employees around all the time, cause brain-busting chaos. There is also a tendency toward consensus: “When we’re constantly in touch with others, we all end up gravitating toward the same pretty-good-but-not-great answers” (128). Creativity and productivity do indeed require a room of one’s own.

We need to come out of our rooms just as much as we go into them, though. We are social creatures, and our brains work well in spaces that allow an easy flow between the private and the communal, spaces that promote encounters while allowing for respite from distractions. This is especially important in the digital era, when it is easy for people to feel disconnected, even disembodied. Paul cites the work of MIT’s Thomas Allen, whose “Allen Curve” states that physical distance between work spaces reduces and then negates collaboration and interaction. A 2017 study of MIT faculty over ten years showed “a network topology and community structure that reveals spatial versus institutional collaboration bias; and 2. a persistent relationship between proximity and collaboration”. (MIT has a long history of thinking about how built spaces can promote collaboration and interdisciplinary work — their “infinite corridor”, which dates back to the early 20th century, is discussed in The Extended Mind.)

Paul points out that monasteries are well designed for thinking and collaboration: “In the popular imagination, monks are solitary, hermit-like creatures — but historically they have lived within a communal setting that balanced time spent alone in study and contemplation with time spent with others in robust social interaction” (128). Jonas Salk and Louis Kahn knew this as they designed the Salk Institute, which Paul highlights, and which Luke Fiederer described for ArchDaily in 2017: “Kahn’s scheme for the Institute is spatially orchestrated in a similar way to a monastery: a secluded intellectual community. Three zones were to stand apart, all facing the ocean to the west: the Meeting House, the Village, and the laboratories. The Meeting House was to be a large community and conference venue, while the Village was to have provided living quarters; each part of the complex would then have been separated from its parallel neighbors by a water garden. Ultimately, the Meeting House and Village were cut from the project, and only the laboratories were built.”

Salk Institute photo by Codera23, Wikimedia

Thinking With: Experts, Peers, Groups

The third section of The Extended Mind is titled “Thinking with Our Relationships”, and here Paul devotes chapters to three types of relationships: those with experts, those with peers, those with groups. There is more here than I have time or need to detail, but a few ideas are particularly worth highlighting, especially as they relate to education.

As throughout the book, Paul encourages us in this section to reconsider some of our deepest assumptions about what makes for good learning and working. Two of the biggest assumptions she challenges are our (by which I mean, in particular, those of us in the US academy) derogation of imitation and our valorization of individual “genius”.

Imitation, Paul says, allows us to think with other people’s brains. It is a key technique — globally and transhistorically — for learning, from babies imitating parents to apprentices imitating masters. And yet imitation is seen in contemporary US society, and schooling especially, as so debased that it is frequently punished. In fact, if Paul is correct (and I think she is, and have thought so for years when teaching writing), we should build imitation into many more of our lesson plans.

Imitation is not easy. “It rarely entails automatic or mindless duplication. Rather, it requires cracking a sophisticated code — solving what social scientists call the ‘correspondence problem,’ or the challenge of adapting an imitated solution to the particulars of a new situation. … It’s paradoxical but true: imitating well demands a considerable degree of creativity” (173).

The apprenticeship model is one that has served humanity well for a long time, and yet so often in schools we seem to undermine what centuries of practice ought to have proved.

Paul breaks apprenticeship down into four pedagogies in a mostly linear sequence: 1. modeling, 2. scaffolding, 3. fading the teacher role, 4. coaching. I was pleased to see this model laid out so clearly, because it’s the one I have found my own teaching moving toward over the years, especially as that teaching has become less about conveying information and more about helping students do particular tasks. It’s a model that will be familiar to anybody who has explored project-based learning, a type of pedagogy that fits quite well with a lot of Paul’s ideas about how brains work.

A focus on imitation and apprenticeship requires instructors to be good models. It’s one of the great challenges of teaching: putting yourself in the place of someone learning, remembering for yourself what it felt like to be new to this. It’s one reason why some of the best teachers are not people who are themselves masters, but rather people who have struggled with the material to be learned. This leads us to what Paul says about thinking with peers. Interpersonal interaction is itself motivating, and one of the best things we can do to teach something is to move students into the teaching role. (Some studies Paul cites show that the other students don’t even necessarily need to exist: if we have a sense of an audience and can imagine teaching them, that imagined teaching itself has benefits for learning.) The student-as-teacher model can be particularly powerful when used in a cyclical way, which Paul calls “cascading mentorship”, where the participants are sometimes students, sometimes teachers. This ties in with her ideas about the “loopiness” of the human brain. We think more recursively than we do linearly.

These social elements of learning are often marginalized, seen as expendable or even frivolous, when in fact they are core to how brains work. One of our biggest problems, Paul says, is that we assume information is information, regardless of context or environment. The brain disagrees. How we encounter information is extremely important to what we will be able to do with it. As Paul notes, this is a challenge for educational technology — too much technology reduces the social aspects of learning and thinking instead of strengthening them. This section of the book felt a bit under-developed, and the examples of “good” ed tech that Paul cited didn’t convince me, but the brief discussion got me thinking about some of the tech-focused communities I’ve known that have developed both good thinking and good sociality. (Open source and open education groups come to mind immediately, partly because they are commmitted to a social view of knowledge. The Digital Pedagogy Lab is a fine example.) I’m not sure that these are so much about a single piece of technology, though. Instead, they are about using technology to build knowledge and community, which is a somewhat different thing. If the tools themselves are not the focus, then community may be able to develop. Focusing on tools alone is not going to do much good for our brains, as far as I can tell.

Social learning does not mean learning without tension or argument. In “Thinking with Peers”, Paul shows that argument and conflict are useful ways to focus attention and strengthen ideas, so long as the arguing is done with a certain amount of openness to new ideas. She approvingly quotes Stanford Business School professor Robert Sutton’s formula for productive conflict: “People should fight as if they are right, and listen as if they are wrong.” The brain, it seems, likes conflict. Or, at least, conflict helps strengthen attention. One thing teachers can do to help students develop interest in a field, for instance, is to tell stories of the conflicts within that field. Present history as a series of undisputed facts and your class is likely to fall asleep pretty quickly; present some of the conflicts over what constitutes meaningful history and your class is likely to feel much more involved. Get them arguing for their positions, researching and sifting the evidence, presenting their interpretations, and soon enough you’ll have some more historians in your midst.

Finally, Paul explores how groups learn. Though conflict can be a useful pedagogical tool, cooperation is necessary for groups to think well together, and too often we privilege individual action over mutual aid, when we have brains that are finely tuned machines for collaborative work (even if we don’t always use them that way). “Uncritical group thinking can lead to foolish and even disastrous decisions,” Paul writes. “But the limitations of excessive ‘cognitive individualism’ are becoming increasingly clear as well. Individual cognition is simply not sufficient to meet the challenges of a world in which information is so abundant, expertise is so specialized, and issues are so complex” (215). Numerous psychological studies have shown the extraordinary ability of our brains and bodies to benefit from synchrony, both physical (coordinated action) and mental (coordinated thinking). From mirroring each other’s behaviors to mirror neurons, brains like to work together. And yet so much of the push in education is toward individualized work — I myself am director of an individualized major program (though we emphasize collaboration). “Aided by technology, we are creating individual, asynchronous, atomized experiences for students and employees — from personalized ‘playlists’ of academic lessons to go-at-your-own-pace online training modules. Then we wonder why our groups don’t cohere, why group work is often frustrating and disappointing, and why thinking with groups doesn’t extend our intelligence.”

One of the best things I picked up in project-based learning training was to be deliberate in teaching groups how to work together. Though our brains may be pretty good at it, our societies are not, and it’s only getting worse. Students need modeling and practice to be able to figure out how to interact in positive ways in groups, how to structure collaborative work, how to overcome the atomizing forces of society. The pandemic has only made this more important while also making it more difficult. Too often, the pandemic has forced us to work alone, to train alone, to learn alone. There is strong evidence that this is not a path to productivity. Consider the “silo effect” that research on training shows. People, Paul says, “who need to think together should train together — in person, at the same time. Research shows that teams that trained as a group collaborate more effectively, commit fewer errors, and perform at a hgiher level than teams made up of people who were trained separately” (224-225). Additionally, people need to having feelings together and to engage in rituals together. These experiences create social glue and encourage collaboration. Hence the value of spaces like cafeterias, where people of various types eat together, engage in small talk, and learn from each other.

Offload and Loop

To use your brain well, get out of your brain. Paul calls this offloading. To think well, she says, “we should offload information, externalize it, move it out of our heads and into the world” (243). The simplest form is just putting things down on paper, whether via doodles or lists or long narratives. This reminds me of something commonly said among Composition & Rhetoric folks (whose field, like project-based learning, already incorporates a lot of the ideas in The Extended Mind): Writing is thinking. As someone supposedly once said, “How do I know what I think till I see what I say?”

Offloading can be far more complex, however, and doesn’t necessarily involve language. For example, “when we use our hands to move objects around, we offload the task of visualizing new configurations onto the world itself, where those configurations take tangible shape before our eyes” (243-244). This leads to one of the basic principles Paul offers in her conclusion: “whenever possible, we should make information into an artifact, to make data into something real — and then proceed to interact with it” (244). This brings us back to the brain’s bias toward physicality and concreteness. The more we can move abstractions toward some sort of concrete representation, the better we’ll be able to think with them and about them. I would bet that most people who are excellent abstract thinkers have developed processes of their own to do just this. Certainly, as Paul shows, people capable of great feats of memory do so. Effective mnemonic devices (like memory palaces) match remembered information to concrete ideas like objects or places. (They also use the brain’s capacity for spatial thinking, a topic Paul has some fascinating insights into.)

Paul likes to quote the philosopher who first came up with the idea of the extended mind, Andy Clark, when he says that humans are “intrinsically loopy creatures”. Brains are not computers working in linear processes. “Something about our biological intelligence benefits from being rotated in and out of internal and external modes of cognition, from being passed among brain, body, and world” (247). The path to good thinking and learning is not a straight one, but rather something that winds and loops around, that needs to move from us to the world and then back again.

Paul’s presentation of the research also at least implies a loop between stability and instability. Or perhaps not a loop so much as a symbiotic relationship. Again, this should be common sense, but in lots of schools and workplaces it seems like a revelation. Creative, innovative thinkers need a sense of safety from which to do their thinking; the most lasting and effective change (in a creative sense) happens via people with a sense of stable identity and belonging. Frantic managers yelling, “Stop resisting change!” may be well intentioned, but their words and actions are counterproductive. Smart leaders will not focus so much on exhorting people not to be afraid of change and will instead work to do everything they can to increase a sense of stable, supportive community. Unfortunately, many leaders see stability, community, and a sense of belonging as enemies of innovation — when in reality they are the prerequisites.

photo by Per Lööv

How to Use These Ideas

The Extended Mind was a thrilling book for me to read because it undermined some of my own assumptions about how the brain works and, more importantly, how to work with the brain. Some of what it says is personally challenging, because, as I noted above, I would rather that my brain were less embodied. But I can’t deny both the mounds of research showing that how I want things is not actually how they are, as well as my own experience of more than four decades of working with this weird brain organ thing in my skull.

What is most thrilling to me about the book, though, is some of what it got me thinking about in terms of its ideas’ application in my own world, the world of teaching and learning. Every reader will come away with different practical applications from the many research studies Paul describes, but here are the ideas most on my own (extended) mind right now:

We need nature. Natural light and natural surroundings reduce stress and aid thinking. This might seem like common sense, but a lot of architecture ignores it.

Valorize motion, not sitting still. Because there is a longstanding cultural prejudice that sees sitting still as a sign of thinking and attention, we build structures toward this prejudice and we enforce it in much of our behavior. Yet low-intensity motion helps with thinking, and high-intensity motion is an excellent way to prepare for thinking or rejuvenate when the thinking feels stale. Perhaps a small step we can take as teachers is to reflect on how we have internalized and perpetuated this prejudice, then work to undo it. Begin by sharing this information with students. How might we incorporate more movement into our sedentary classes?

Encourage imitation. By seeing imitation as intellectually empty and even fraudulent, we neglect one of the most powerful learning tools we have. How might we build imitation more deliberately into our pedagogy? How might we use an intentionally-designed apprenticeship model for more types of learning?

Physical beats virtual. The brain’s preference for the physical over the virtual does not mean online learning or technologized learning is inevitably bad, or even inevitably worse than physical learning. But we should design our virtual work for brains that prefer the physical. One of the less developed ideas in The Extended Mind concerns the things we prioritize in tech development. Too often, Paul says, we think speed is the height of achievement. Instead, we need technology that builds off of our innate, human capacities. I don’t have any sort of answer for what this might look like, but it has me thinking about how I design the tech elements of my classes. This could be a fruitful area for instructional designers, for instance, to research and explore.

Build pathways between communal and private work. Too often, we celebrate one or the other, but thinking actually works best when it has the opporunity to be done both in private and alongside other people. Proximity and ease of movement between the two modes matters. If a person can work on ideas alone and privately for a little while, then easily bring those ideas to a group, then move back to the private space, and continue this cycle as necessary, the thinking will be better.

Synchronicity trumps asynchronicity. Again and again in The Extended Mind, research shows that people who figure out how to work together at the same time end up learning more and better. This has become clear to me during the pandemic when we switched suddenly to emergency remote learning. What seemed to determine the greatest success and failure for my classes was not whether they were in person or online, hybrid or not. Instead, the biggest difference was between students who attended class sessions (via whatever modality) at the same time and those who worked asynchronously. The synchronous students had an easier time and did better work than the students who did the same work but did so on their own schedule. This is something I am going to bring to my discussions of attendance with students. Schools work well not just because organizing classes of students together is easier than organizing a bunch of individual students, but because our brains (if they are neurotypical, at least) like to learn together. This doesn’t mean that all asynchronous learning is bad, but rather that to make it effective, we will need to attend carefully to the other ways we know that people learn well, because those other ways become more important when you remove as useful a brain tool as synchronous learning.

To think abstractly, get concrete. Embodied brains love the physical world and will privilege it over everything else whenever possible. To think well abstractly, we can do a few things to help our brains — physicalizing and offloading are two of the easiest and most effective. Find ways to make abstract concepts physical and preferably manipulable. Get them out of the brain itself.

Tell stories. While the material about just how darn embodied our brains are might have been something of a bummer for someone as uncomfortable being bodied as I am, the material about how much our brains like narratives was just what I wanted to read. I’m a fiction writer and a scholar of literature, so this was very much speaking my language. (Even as I am quite skeptical of some applications of neurobiology to literature.) Paul’s presentation on pages 206-210 about storytelling and the ways it helps brains understanding information fits closely with my own experience of teaching. For better or worse, our brains seem activated by conflict. The more we can use (productive) conflict and storytelling in our teaching, the better we will engage students’ attention and activate their learning.

Bigger is better. One of the more surprising bits of information to me in The Extended Mind is the convincing research showing that large, high-resolution monitors make thinking a lot easier than smaller and lower-resolution monitors — to the extent that “high-resolution displays increase by more than tenfold the average speed at which basic visualization tasks are completed” (148). Large displays, it turns out, allow the brain to use more of the body, including peripheral vision: “Research by [Robert] Ball and others shows that the capacity to access information through our peripheral vision enable us to gather more knowledge and insight at one time, providing us with a richer sense of context” (148). Larger displays also allow us to bring more spatial memory to bear on problems: “large displays, or multiple displays, offer enough space to lay out all the data in an arrangement that persists over time, allowing us to leverage our spatial memory as we navigate through information” (149). In various research studies, participants using multiple monitors have shown significantly better ability to remember information than participants using single monitors. Smaller screens are not just less efficient for thinking, they work against it: “The screen’s small size means that the map we constuct of our conceptual terrain has to be held inside our head rather than fully laid out on the screen itself. We must devote some portion of our limited cognitive bandwidth to maintaining that map in mind; what’s more, the mental version of our map may not stay true to the data, becoming inaccurate or distorted over time.” These ideas apply not only to technology, but to how we present information generally. Plenty of people, for instance, use large posters (or giant Post-It notes) spread around a learning space, often doing so because it seems like fun or an engaging way to change things up in a classroom (and it is!). In truth, though, such methods of presenting information are a great aid to memory and learning.

Prepare for stress. The ideal for learning and resilience is not to eliminate stress, but to anticipate it. The greatest achievers, whether high-performance athletes or people who work productively in stressful environments, are people whose brains and bodies know stress is coming and make way for it. We teachers can help our students with this. Let them know when the most difficult work is coming. Help them prepare for that work, then admit that the challenge is real and it is difficult. There might even be a way to meld this idea with the idea Paul is less fond of, that of growth mindset — certainly, the brain is not a muscle, but maybe one of the ways we can integrate what we know of the physiological response to stress with what we know of the brain’s love of loops is to think of the stress of learning as itself a loop, and consider how we might position ourselves to experience the parts of the loop that are most stressful. This could be a valuable area for future research.

Coda

I’m sure I will come up with more ideas as I continue to think about The Extended Mind and, especially, to talk with other people about it. Because of psychology’s replication crises and certain strains’ tendency toward evolutionary just-so stories, I am perhaps more skeptical of studies of how the mind works than I am of other sorts of studies, but nonetheless I found a lot of The Exended Mind convincing. At least as importantly, I find it useful. Page after page offers ideas that I can see putting to work in my daily life as a teacher. For that, I am not just excited, but grateful.

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