📚 Finished reading The Extended Mind by Annie Murphy Paul.

This was one of those books that are so fascinating that when I attempt to highlight the interesting bits I find myself highlighting the whole book. I’d heard good things about it and it certainly delivered.

It’s on a topic that’s of great import and interest to me - essentially how to think “better”. It also share a thesis that wasn’t entirely intuitive to me in a way that suggests some practical avenues one can easily change one’s behaviour in order to improve the output of your cognition. What more could be asked?

The general idea is that our society has fixated far too much on the idea that the individual brain is the sole locus of thinking, of cognition, of creativity and problem solving.

It’s the “brain as computer model”, as though we each have a self-contained isolated CPU in our heads that performs our thinking at whatever speed and quality nature saw fit to bestow upon us. That would suggest that aside from sitting at a desk an individually focusing on formal education and training courses, perhaps we could improve our brain’s performance by learning new ways to think about things within our brain, some lifehacks, engaging in brain training or supplementation, but that’s about it. Intelligence is a “fixed lump of something in our heads”, and we design our home, schools and workplaces around that idea

But the author contends that this is all wrong. Modern research has shown that the brain should be thought of more as a magpie. It creates its output out of the materials it finds around it. Thinking uses resources external to the brain, and the nature of the materials available affects the quality of the thinking. Intelligence, as properly considered, isn’t fixed, but rather a “shifting state” that depends on the level of access you have to resources outside of your brain and your ability to leverage them. This book gives you the knowledge to try and improve both of those for yourself and those around you.

And this is essential work! Modern day life involves absorbing a ton of information, often in abstract forms that we had no reason to evolve to be good at, so we aren’t. Many of the challenges and tasks that face us are extremely complex.

It isn’t for nothing that the amount of journal papers and patent applications that have a single author is dwindling over time. At some point much “interesting” work may have exceeded the natural capability of almost anyone’s individual brain, no matter how ensconced in an ivory tower it is.

The book is grouped into three main sections, each of which deals with a different sphere in which we can consider extending our mind.

The first is using our bodies, rather than our brains to help us think. We are more than brains on a stick. The second is adapting the environments we reside in to enable improved thinking. In some ways the trend in recent times has been to engineer ever worse environments for thinking as time goes on. And the last is to leverage our social natures, to “think” with our relationships to other people. Groups of people can be more than the sum of their individuals, particularly if proactively designed to work as such.

The argument is that at present we’d be much better served in spending time figuring out how to improve our capabilities in using these external resources than undergoing individual training to improve some personal skill.

Three sets of general principles arise. The first concerns the “habits of mind” that we should adopt to improve the output of our thinking.

  • Offload information from your brain whenever you can. This could mean anything from writing down your thoughts or “socially offloading” them to other people.
  • Transform information into artefacts, ideally physical ones. Interact with them, tweak them, show them to other people.
  • Be proactive in altering your inner state. Take some physical exercise before trying to learn something. Synchronise with others before you attempt group work. Spend time in nature if you have an upcoming creative task.

The second set of principles uses our understanding of what the brain evolved to do in order to grasp how mental extension works.

  • Aim to “re-embody” information. Allow your body’s interoceptive signals to influence your choices. Use physical movement to enact concepts. Focus on your gestures and those of others.
  • Re-spatialise information when possible. Our brain processes information via mental maps. Use memory palaces, concept maps and the like to leverage that evolved capacity.
  • Re-socialise information. We process it better when we involved others. Teach others what you know, learn from them, imitate, argue, debate and tell each other stories.

Lastly we have a set of principles based on “what kind of creatures we are”.

  • Deliberately create cognitive loops. Use your body to help you think, then spatialise the information, then run it through the brains of other people. Keep looping it through each realm, again and again.
  • Create “cognitively congenial situations”. Issuing orders to your brain is a strategy often destined to fail. Instead, create environments that draw out the desired result of your thinking. Explain things to your peers, share stories, create a meaningful private space, walk in nature. What you do should depend on your cognitive goal.
  • Embed extensions in your day-to-day environment. This can range from arranging “identity cues” in your workspace through to deliberately cultivating a transactive memory system with your colleagues.

I guess the main takeaway is that the best thinking does not generally occur when you are sat still on your own in a bland, neutrally-lit grey office of the sort often designed to aid thinking via being “distraction-free”.

But other people, other environments, other ways of being, your feelings and emotions are not always distractions to good thought. Far from it. Often thoughtfully seeking them out and leveraging them to extend our minds can produce far better thinking outputs, much more suited to the modern world, than the environments we’ve historically designed.

The title of the book seems to be a shout-out to Clark and Chalmers' paper “The Extended Mind”, which is referred to in the text. In that they argue in a somewhat similar vein for the “extended mind thesis” - namely that the mind isn’t limited to our brains, or even our bodies. Rather that external items in the physical world - a diary, a computer - can be considered as part of the cognitive process and as such as extension of the mind.

My full notes are here.

Book cover of The Extended Mind