How to extend the power of your brain to maximize intelligence

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Annie Murphy Paul is an acclaimed science writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, the Boston Globe, American scientist, TIME review, and the Best American Scientific Writing. She is currently a member of New America’s Learning Sciences Exchange.

Below, Annie shares five key ideas from her new book, The extended mind: the power to think outside the brain. Listen to the audio version, read by Annie herself, in the Next Big Idea app.

1. Thinking doesn’t just happen in the brain.

Over 20 years ago two philosophers, Andy Clark and David Chalmers wrote a newspaper article that began with a question: “Where does the mind end and where does the rest of the world begin?” Now this question seems to have an obvious answer, right? The mind stops at the head. It is contained in the skull. But Clark and Chalmers have argued that this assumption, as common as it is, is wrong. The mind, they said, takes things outside the head and pulls them into the process of thinking. These mental “extensions” allow us to think in ways that our brain could not handle on its own. They called this phenomenon “the extended mind”.

2. We extend the mind with the body.

In the West, we are used to thinking that the mind and the body are separate. But a growing field called “embodied cognition” demonstrates that thought is in fact a whole bodily experience. This is true in several different ways.

First, the body’s internal sensations – our “gut feelings” – guide our perceptions and reactions. When we learn to connect to these inner signals, we can use them to make smarter decisions and even to connect more effectively with other people.

Second, the movements of our body affect the way we think. We’ve come to believe that serious thinking involves sitting still, but research shows that moving – walking, exercising, acting – improves our mental processes in ways that don’t happen when we’re sitting down.

Third, a specific type of movement – the gestures we make with our hands – extend our thinking by capturing and expressing concepts that we cannot yet put into words. Research shows that our most advanced and forward thinking ideas often first appear in the movements of our hands, movements that we then use to inform and build a verbal account of what we are thinking.

3. We can also expand our mind with physical space.

It’s common in our culture to compare the brain to a computer, but this is a deeply flawed analogy. A laptop works the same way whether it’s open on a desk in an office or on a bench in a park. But human brains aren’t like that: they’re extremely context sensitive. One of the most fertile and fruitful places to “think” is nature. This is because, over the eons of evolution, our brains have adapted to the type of sensory information available in the natural world. Spending time in a constructed, highly designed and challenging environment depletes our mental resources, while spending time in nature replenishes them. We can also deliberately arrange the interior spaces we occupy in such a way as to extend our thinking. Research shows that it is especially important that we feel a sense of control and ownership of the space in which we learn or work. It is also important to incorporate in these spaces identity cues, that is to say objects or symbols of who you are, of what you do in this space, as well as clues of belonging, objects or symbols that represent your belonging to a meaningful group. yours.

4. We can expand our minds with the social interactions we have with other people.

Very often we assume that real thinking – serious thinking – is done alone, hunched over a book or notepad. But in fact, humans think better when they interact with others. Social activities like debate, storytelling and teaching activate mental processes that remain dormant when we are alone. In fact, when we structure our interactions with others in the right way, we can actually engage a kind of group spirit – a collective entity that is smarter than any of its members.

5. The “naked” brain, the non-extended brain, is not that powerful.

We hear a lot about the Amazing Brain, but the lesser-known scientific story of the past 20 years is what researchers have learned about the limits of the brain. These limits are not a matter of individual differences in intelligence; they are common to all of our brains. They are the product of the brain’s status as a biological organ, an organ that has evolved to do very different things than what we ask of it in our complex, knowledge-centric modern world.

Relying on the resources of the extended mind allows the brain to “outperform”, to do more than is possible on its own. In fact, we can think of the experts among us as people who have mastered the art of thinking outside the brain. Research shows that top performers don’t do everything in their heads; they achieve superior results by integrating internal and external resources.

When we intentionally cultivate the ability to think outside the brain, a new world of possibilities opens up; we access reserves of intuition, memory, attention and motivation that are not available to the naked brain. In order to think the intelligent, informed, and original thoughts of which we are capable, we cannot rely solely on the brain. We have to think outside the brain.


This article originally appeared in Next Big Idea Club magazine and is reprinted with permission.

The Next Big Idea Club is a subscription book club hosted by Malcolm Gladwell, Susan Cain, Daniel Pink and Adam Grant. The Next Big Idea Club provides key information on all the best new books through the Next Big Idea app, website and podcast. To hear the audio version of this article, narrated by the author, and to enjoy other tidbits of books, download the Next Big Idea app.


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