Why You Should Think With Your Environment, Not Just Your Mind

Earlier this summer, science writer Annie Murphy Paul released a book built around a fairly radical idea: the way we think about thinking is flawed, inasmuch as we believe that it happens almost entirely inside our brains. The Extended Mind draws on recent research in cognitive science to suggest that’s actually not true. We make better use of our cognitive resources, says Paul, when we use them in conjunction with “extra-neural” resources: our body (embodied cognition), our environment (situated cognition), and the people around us (distributed cognition).

“The brain evolved to move the body, to navigate through space, to interact with other people,” says Paul. “Those are these human strengths that we’re totally putting aside when we focus on the brain and we think, ‘To get real thinking and real work done, I have to sit still, not talk to anybody, and just push my brain harder and harder.’ It’s just not working very well.”

Paul’s not trying to argue that the brain isn’t central to thinking—just that a greater appreciation of how our body and our social and physical environment affects it could lead to greater cognitive development. For instance, do you think more clearly after spending a day hiking through the forest, or after a day sitting in a room, on back-to-back Zooms? I’m going to guess the day of moving through nature. Well, could encouraging kids to move—instead of sitting still—while they study actually help them learn better? Can we design our offices and built environments to better mimic green spaces and the natural world?

These seem like questions worth asking at a moment where we’re rethinking our ideas about everything from work to social gatherings. Paul talked to GQ about the future of remote work, the science behind a gut feeling, why you shouldn’t use Twitter as your break from work, and how rethinking our ideas on thinking might disrupt our meritocracy.

You talk about our “brainbound” view of the world. Can you explain what that means?

I borrowed that one from Andy Clark, who is the philosopher who originated the theory of the extended mind. What he means by brainbound, and what I mean by brainbound, is this neurocentric focus. This focus on the brain as the locus of thinking turns a blind eye to all the ways that thinking is spread across extra neural resources—like the body, like physical space, like other people. It isn’t just limited to this three-pound lump of tissue inside of cells.

In the introduction, you write that you’ve never before encountered an idea that changed so much how you think, how you work, how you parent, or how you navigate everyday life. What are some concrete things you’ve changed in your life because of the research you’ve done in this book?

As a culture, we try to do too much in our heads. So one really big takeaway that was useful for me was offloading mental content whenever possible. You always want to be getting the stuff in your head out onto physical space, whether that’s a whiteboard or a sketchpad. The brain evolved to manipulate physical objects and use tools, not to think about abstract concepts. So the more we can turn ideas into physical objects, [the better]. I have a big bulletin board that I put Post-it notes on. When you load it out in space like that, you can actually use the human capacity for navigation. You’re navigating through information rather than trying to think about it all in your head.

This book is really counter-cultural in a way. It’s debunking a lot of myths that we take for granted—brainbound thinking being one of them. What are some of the other myths about thinking that stand out to you?

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