WSJ: ‘The Extended Mind’ Review: Thinking Outside the Brain

Notebooks, sketch pads, talking with others—all help us to improve our thought processes. We make the world our whiteboard—an extra brain lobe.

The Wall Street Journal
May 24, 2021
By Matthew Hutson

In 1998 philosophers Andy Clark and David Chalmers published an article titled “The Extended Mind,” in which they wondered, “Where does the mind stop and the rest of the world begin?” Human beings have long relied on technology—print or digital—to remember things and play with ideas. We live and work and learn in crowds—online or off. The self is permeable; no mind is an island. Sure, the brain sits isolated in a skull, but it feeds on interaction with the outside world.

Cognitive scientists have since explored the philosophers’ question in several related fields, including embodied, situated and distributed cognition—respectively, how thought is shaped by bodily experience, physical environments and social exchange. In her book “The Extended Mind,” science writer Annie Murphy Paul takes on each in turn. “Our scientific journals mostly proceed from the premise that the mental organ is a disembodied, placeless, asocial entity, a ‘brain in a vat,’ ” she complains at the beginning. “Our history books spin tales that attribute world-changing breakthroughs to individual men, thinking great thoughts on their own.” While this criticism may be overstated, her efforts to upset these interpretations is fascinating, sure-footed and wide-ranging.

First, Ms. Paul argues, we pay too little attention to the body. At the ground level, people differ in their interoception, or perception of internal states. Heartbeat awareness sometimes correlates with decision-making ability, as arousal alerts us to danger before we become consciously aware of it. Meditation supposedly increases such abilities. Ms. Paul notes that we might also be made smarter by movement. Exercise or mere walking sharpens perception; for students, participating in recess can improve classwork. We gain a special benefit from gestures. Speakers moving their hands help speakers think and listeners listen. Gesture comes before speech in evolution, child development and even individual utterances.

Working her way outward, Ms. Paul argues that the spaces around us expand our minds. Encountering nature can have salutary effects, whether it’s a walk in the woods or looking out an office window. Greenery reduces rumination and anxiety, increases attention and creativity, and lifts one’s mood and physical health, Ms. Paul notes. Built spaces can also be mind-altering, for good or bad. Open offices were meant to help collaboration but typically increase distraction and reduce interaction. Walls increase privacy and some types of creativity. We work best when we can design our own spaces and control when we work solo and work jointly. Then, Ms. Paul notes, there’s the space of ideas. Thinkers benefit from notebooks, sketch pads, architectural models, concept maps and big or multiple computer screens. You can make the world your whiteboard—and in turn an extra brain lobe.
Finally, Ms. Paul says, we can merge with other minds. First, by copying experts, or whoever has gone before, and learning from their wisdom and mistakes. Or by sharing one’s expertise: Teachers sometimes learn more than their students, because they are reviewing and organizing material. Second, Ms. Paul notes, we benefit from working with peers. Open-minded debate helps people find flaws in their arguments, and motivates participants to learn more in preparation. We also learn better from peers’ stories and gossip than we do from dry textbooks. Third, thinking as a group lets us tackle projects that simply elude the grasp of one person, such as operating a navy vessel or a particle accelerator. Groups as small as a married couple help members think by delegating memory duties (where are the yard things versus the house things?).

I don’t mind the book’s study-heavy spans. Each finding adds something, and Ms. Paul strings them together coherently, while interspersing literature review with anecdotes—of James Watson’s discovering the structure of DNA using cardboard cutouts or Pixar filmmakers’ refining stories through spirited discourse.

I do have two quibbles about science-writing practices that are not exclusive to this book. Ms. Paul mentions many studies demonstrating correlation but not causation. Controlled experiments in which researchers subject participants to particular conditions and then compare outcomes present the most convincing results. Authors needn’t add a disclaimer to every correlational finding—reminding us that outside factors may be at play—but one or two would be nice. Fortunately, Ms. Paul usually doesn’t hang her hat on such studies, as they mostly accompany causal studies.

But she does rely heavily on studies of brain scans to justify claims about what happens when humans think under certain conditions. What matters in most cases is how things affect behavior, not how they affect the brain activity that is sometimes correlated with behavior. This fallacy is sometimes called neurorealism. What are you going to do with the fact that hippocampal activation predicts memory performance? Flex your hippocampus?

Ms. Paul does provide some practical advice, drawing on cross-domain principles. To help our crowded minds offload information, she suggests, we can find ways to use methods like making notes and confiding in collaborators. We should create cognitive loops, in which we use external tools or problem-solving partners to help us work out ideas. We should create situations in which these things happen naturally. And we should alter our own mental states occasionally with exercise or nature. (I’m not sure such altered states are truly mind-extending in the way that her other methods are, but they’re still a good idea.)

By removing the brain from the vat, Ms. Paul writes, thinking “can become as dynamic as our bodies, as airy as our spaces, as rich as our relationships—as capacious as the whole wide world.” And if you argue that only the privileged have access to untouched nature, large monitors, accomplished mentors and abundant classroom supplies, well, Ms. Paul has beat you to the punch. Seeing smarts not as sheer brainpower but as a mingling of mind and milieu, she suggests, might prompt us to look for ways to improve the surroundings and supports available to those less fortunate than we. “Acknowledging the reality of the extended mind,” Ms. Paul concludes, “might well lead us to embrace the extended heart.”

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