September 26th, 2022
The Extended Mind - The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain (Annie Murphy Paul, 2021)
How do you think best? Easy, you sit down, focus on your thoughts, and shut everything else out. Well, not according to Extended Mind theory - It says that we think with more than just the brain! Annie Murphy Paul's book gives an excellent overview, with lots of insightful studies and examples.
The brain is not a computer
The dominant metaphor we have for our brain is that of a computer - we feed it input, it is processed, and we receive an output. For many of us knowledge workers, this mode of thinking has become our natural way of operating, our comfort zone, and even our identity.
First, Annie Murphy Paul shows that the body plays a major role in our cognitive performance. For example, we assumed boys were better at spatial thinking than girls. But recent studies have shown that gesturing during spatial problem solving, like doing rotations with your hands, improves results dramatically. Boys may not be cognitively superior, but simply more encouraged to make use of their bodies than girls.
The ability to be in tune with your body is called interoception. A quick self test - can you feel your heart beat without touching your chest? A study found out that stock traders perform better when they are good at sensing their own heart beat. So there really is a thing like a gut instinct, something we can train (think of body scan meditation) and employ consciously!
Objects, people, groups
Even objects can enhance our cognitive performance. Just build some legos, or pick up a pen and a piece of paper and externalise your thoughts, by drawing a doodle or doing some journaling. This allows you to distance yourself from your thoughts, view them from another perspective, and build on top of that.
I fondly remember whiteboard sessions in the office, where simple diagrams frequently helped us overcome complicated problems. And that's a great way of extending your mind as well - involving other people in your thought process.
You may have experienced that by teaching, you understand and learn better yourself. And those of you who are doing mob programming might have realized that the result is likely much better than the sum of its parts, and it doesn't matter who had which idea.
Annie Murphy Paul argues that we humans are in a sense "loopy" creatures. We naturally think in loops, by repeatedly externalizing our thoughts and then reprocessing them. We relate differently to information once it is out of our heads - externalizing allows us to extend our mind, and think beyond our brains.
I guess this is why I love visual collaboration methods so much. Being physically in front of a whiteboard, with everyone emptying their heads onto stickies, and tackling problems in groups. It takes so much less effort, it feels so lightweight and natural, and the results are generally superior to the work of an individual.
I wonder how a workplace would look like that was optimized for the Extended Mind! What do you think?
The book has given me a solid understanding of things I only felt true so far. And it contains so many more great examples! If you don't have the time to read it, I can recommend this edition of Talks at Google, with a delightful dialogue between host Diahna Fortuna and the author Annie Murphy Paul.