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Annie Murphy Paul 

“I’m convinced that I could not have written this book without the help of the practices detailed within it.” 
So I state in my forthcoming book, The Extended Mind, and I really believe it. Writing The Extended Mind involved synthesizing the findings of thousands of research studies conducted by neuroscientists, psychologists, cognitive scientists, and biologists, and integrating them with material drawn from philosophy, anthropology, sociology, history, and literature, with a bunch of biographies of scientists and artists included in the mix.
 
There were many moments when I felt like my brain was about to explode—so it’s fortunate indeed that in the course of writing the book, I learned how to think outside the brain: that is, employ outside-the-head resources to do some of the mental work for me.
 
I thought it might be interesting to detail for you some of the ways that employing the extended mind helped me complete this wide-ranging project, and how it allowed me to entertain thoughts and achieve insights that would have been impossible if I had relied on my brain alone.
 
  1.  Writing The Extended Mind induced me to “offload” and then interact with my mental contents.  
     
    When I first started my research, I was trying to do far too much “in my head.” Work on the book took a leap forward once I acted on my own advice and moved my thoughts out of my head and onto paper—specifically, onto a bunch of Post-It Notes. Offloading information onto the sticky notes relieved my brain of the burden of keeping that information in mind. It granted me more mental bandwidth to think about the information, and to engage in the higher-level cognitive activities of reflecting and analyzing (and not simply keeping track). 
     
    Once I started arranging and re-arranging the Post-It Notes on a large expanse of wall, I gained two additional advantages. I could now use my capacity for spatial cognition—a robust ability we all possess but don’t employ nearly enough—to literally, physically navigate through the information: using my spatial memory, for example, to remember where I’d placed particular ideas, and using my peripheral vision to take in the whole informational “scene.”
     
    And, too, I could now reap the benefits of what psychologists call “interactivity.” I was interacting with my ideas as if they were objects I could physically manipulate and move around. Research shows that interactivity allows us to solve problems more quickly and achieve insight more readily.

  2. Writing The Extended Mind convinced me to use physical movement to change my thinking.

    Initially I believed that the more time I spent sitting in my office chair, the more work I’d get done on the book. After months of reading about the effect of physical activity on cognition, however, I decided to add a bout of exercise to my workday schedule. According to the plan I formed, I would read and write all morning, and then hop on my bicycle in the early afternoon for a 45-minute ride.

    The difference this made was remarkable. My research on “metaphorical movements” had taught me that moving in particular ways primes the brain to think in particular ways, and in fact the fluid motion I experienced on my bike seemed to get my thoughts flowing in a dynamic way. 

    After my bike ride, I would return to my desk, and there I experienced for myself another phenomenon described in the literature: a bout of medium-intensity exercise induces us to think more intelligently. It improves our ability to focus attention and resist distraction, produces greater verbal fluency and cognitive flexibility, enhances our problem-solving and decision- making capacities, and boosts our working memory. Research demonstrates that such effects last up to two hours after exercise is completed.

  3.  Writing The Extended Mind led me to employ nature as an attention-restorer.

    Before beginning my work on the book, I regarded my attention span in terms of how I spent it, how I managed it, how I controlled it (or, often, failed to control it). I didn’t think in terms of how I might replenish it. That changed once I learned about how intense mental effort drains our attention, and how gentle, diffuse contemplation fills it back up.

    This kind of “soft fascination,” as psychologists call it, is most readily evoked in nature. Eons of evolution have tuned our perceptual faculties such that we find the visual and auditory stimuli present in nature especially easy to process. As we walk through a park or along a trail in the woods, our brains enter a relaxed state that allows our attentional capacity to be restored.

    My daily bike ride did double duty in this way, but even on days when I wasn’t able to get outside, I made sure to pause every few minutes to look out my office window and contemplate the rustling leaves of the big maple tree that grows in my front yard. Research shows that such “micro-restorative experiences” leave us more alert, less prone to making errors, and more in control of our attention.
     
  4.  Writing The Extended Mind persuaded me to redesign my workspace in ways that promote intelligent thought. 

    I work from home, and I have an office that, while small, is mine alone. My sons know to knock before entering, and I came to understand the importance of this small act once I completed the research for the chapter on “extending the mind with physical space.” It turns out that a sense of ownership and control over one’s workspace promotes more effective thinking; likewise, a sense of privacy promotes thinking that is more creative and original.
     
    My office had all that going for it—but (apart from the wall covered in Post-It Notes) it was bare of adornment. I changed that in response to what I learned about the importance of cues of identity (objects and symbols that remind us of who we are and what we’re doing in that space), as well as cues of belonging (objects and symbols that remind us of membership in meaningful groups).
     
    Today my office is full of such cues: on the bulletin board above my desk, there are clippings of articles I’ve written and photographs from reporting trips I’ve taken; on the shelves just opposite, there is a memento of my alma mater I brought home from a recent college reunion, and a coffee mug emblazoned with the logo of the think tank at which I currently hold a fellowship.
     
    These cues help make my identity as a thinker and a writer especially salient. Each of us possesses multiple identities, psychologist Daphna Oysterman has observed, and “which identity is salient in the moment influences both what one pays attention to and what one chooses to do.”
     
  5.  Writing The Extended Mind prompted me to engage in social interactions that added new dimensions to my thinking.
     
    Books are written alone, right? That’s what I’ve always assumed, and of course there is a lot of solitary labor involved. But when working on this book, I drew on the minds of others in ways I hadn’t when writing my previous books. In this I was influenced by research I’d read demonstrating that social activities like storytelling, teaching, and debating engage cognitive processes that remain dormant when we think by ourselves.
     
    In the effort to entertain and edify another person with a story, for example, we automatically shape and streamline our thoughts, establishing a clear causal chain of events and setting aside extraneous details. The narrative form itself, and our desire to tell a good story, leads us to construct a more effective account of our thinking.
     
    Likewise, in the course of teaching someone else, we’re motivated to address the gaps and inconsistencies in our own understanding, and to adopt a “metacognitive” stance toward what we know, reflecting on our knowledge from a new perspective.
     
    And when we debate with others, we subject our ideas to the rigor of external challenge—a challenge that appears difficult to muster from within. Indeed, cognitive scientist Hugo Mercier has proposed that many of the cognitive biases we assume are unavoidable, if lamentable, features of the human brain—such as “confirmation bias”—are actually the product of using the brain in solitude. Humans evolved to reason in a social setting, he writes, and when we reason this way, many of these biases disappear.

I’ll end here with another line from The Extended Mind:
“During my many years of reporting, I had never before encountered an idea that changed so much about how I think, how I work, how I parent, how I navigate everyday life.”
 
The changes I’ve described here really only scratch the surface. In the next edition of my newsletter, I’ll be explaining how the extended mind has changed me as a parent and a teacher.
 
I’d love to hear from you. If you have any comments or questions about what you’ve read, please reply to this message, or email me at anniemurphypaul@gmail.com.
 
All my best,
Annie
 
P.S. The Extended Mind will be published a week from today!
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