Visit my show at the PSCCU Credit Union, Vashon, Washington May, June 2024 

Give your brain a break—extend your mind

Where does the mind live? In our brains? Our bodies? The environment? Each other? Some mix?

Or, as philosophers Andy Clark and David Chalmers asked in 2000,  “Where does the mind stop and the rest of the world begin?”

While those questions might sound philosophical, they are really super practical. They move us from brain-based thinking to an expansive new way of looking at the mind.

Don’t just strengthen the brain—extend it

I don’t have to tell you the world’s in a mess. The scary thing is that we may have outrun the capacity of individual brains to solve the complex problems we face. The amount of information, knowledge, technology, and problems keeps growing. We need help.

We might think the answer is in strengthening our brains. If you search online, you’ll find almost endless brain support ideas—eat the right stuff, cut down inflammation, exercise, do puzzles, etc. These tools and tips support the brain as an organ. That’s fine, but not to achieve the kind of intelligence we need.

Clark and Chalmers coined the expression “The extended mind” to describe how the mind involves interacting with the world. We can use “mind extensions” to fortify our intelligence by seeing the mind as interactive and developmental. In The Extended Mind: The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain, science writer Annie Murphy Paul translates such ideas into practical applications.,

Why moving matters

A small story about my love/hate with Zoom: I appreciate it and use it a lot. But I HATE apologizing to my colleagues, “Please, don’t be offended, but I need to turn my video off so I can walk around. I promise I will listen and share.” I feel immature—like I’m not quite an adult capable of sitting still for hours on calls.

But from the point of view of supporting our minds, sitting and staring at Zoom screens for hours does us no favors. What helps the mind is moving, gesturing, making things with our hands, and walking around. 

So, please, friends, forgive me, but sometimes I just have to move.

It’s the environment 

The environments we work in make a difference in how we can think. Picture a walk in the woods and how you may breathe, relax, and process ideas better than in a loud and hurried workplace. 

Then I think about schools I have seen (or adult training classrooms) where kids or adults are confined to windowless rooms and are expected to sit still under fluorescent lights and absorb information. Yikes.

I remember being locked in a windowless boardroom for hours in order to receive wisdom from senior executives addicted to using Powerpoint slides for hours. “The Devil Does Powerpoint” could be the name of a movie. I called such environments hell. 

It doesn’t have to be that way, especially when we realize that we think and work better when we pay attention to creating life-affirming and sense-pleasing environments.

Beyond the brain

In her book introduction, Paul asserted:

“Our culture insists that the brain is the sole locus of thinking, a cordoned-off space where cognition happens.”

Paul suggests that maybe the people we call experts aren’t the brainiest among us. Maybe they’re better at using neural, kinesthetic, environmental, and social mind extensions. Perhaps they know how to shape the environments in which ideas can emerge. Or move, play, make things, and hold conversations that help them transcend the limits of their brains.

Given my age, I care about my brain’s health and worry about the possibility of memory and mental decline. But you won’t find me signing up for online “brain gym” exercises anytime soon. I’ll feel more cognitively capable after taking a walk.

Here are some mind extensions I took from the book:

  • Pay attention to the body—you probably know more than you know that you know. Sensory clues can tip us off to important ideas.
  • Off-load information from the brain onto paper. Better yet, enrich it by embodying it – miming it, dancing it, or creating something that represents the concept you are working on.
  •  Spatialize information. Use your body to make a map or large display. Diagram ideas.
  • Use gestures. Hand and arm movements can help you process information and help others understand you.
  • Spend time in a natural environment. Get out in the woods to renew yourself or bring some elements of nature into your work environment.
  • Pay attention to the built world, specifically, the office. Open offices and floor plans may be too noisy and distracting for many of us. And “hoteling” or using space temporarily, a concept popularized during the pandemic, may not provide a mind-optimal environment—because we don’t feel any ownership of the space.
  • Move. Movement can renew us and expand our thinking.
  • Find ways to see, do, imitate, argue with, and learn from each other.

I think Paul needs to add “play” to her model. And she could do more with the arts, performance, story-telling, and improv. That said, The Extended Mind is a great read, and it has extended my thinking.

As the iconic message from the United Negro College Fund states, “A mind is a terrible thing waste.”

I agree, especially when we all have such potential to grow.

2 Responses

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Translate »

Create Your Own Story! Get the Free Download

Live your life with more meaning, creativity and joy. And enjoy our free e-book to help you create the story you want to live.

You have Successfully Subscribed!