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Annie Murphy Paul on The Extended Mind

“When we expect the brain to function like a computer… we’re really underselling its actual powers”


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Annie Murphy Paul is an acclaimed science writer. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Boston Globe, Scientific American, Slate, Time magazine, The Best American Science Writing, and other publications.

Our conversation focuses on the subject of her latest book, The Extended Mind, which is about how human cognition relies on our bodies, other people, and the material world. I loved this book and was thrilled to ask Annie about how this line of thinking plays out in the context of our heavily digitized lives.

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Jorge: Annie, welcome to the show.

Annie: Thank you, Jorge. It’s really great to be here.

Jorge: Well, it’s a real pleasure and an honor to have you. I recently read your newest book and I… like I wrote on my blog, I loved it. So, it’s great to have you here to talk about it. Some folks might not be familiar with you and your work. How do you go about introducing yourself and what you do?

About Annie

Annie: You know, I usually say that I’m a science writer, but even as I say that, I feel like a little bit of an imposter. Because to me, a science writer is someone who writes about the mission to Mars, or the COVID 19 virus, or something. And I really only write about one particular kind of science, and that is the science of human behavior. If it has something to do with people, and how they act, and how they think, then I’m a hundred percent interested. But I don’t write about other kinds of entities or report on other kinds of science. I’m exclusively really devoted to thinking and writing about human behavior. And in particular, human cognition. Learning and cognition are really my… that’s my wheelhouse.

Jorge: These are hugely important subjects. The Extended Mind is your third book, yes?

Annie: It is.

Jorge: And, the other two deal with cognition…. and I have to be frank, I have not read the other two. But just from looking at them, it seems like they deal with cognition at early stages of human development. Is that right?

Annie: Well, my first book was about personality testing. It’s called The Cult Of Personality, and it was a scientific critique and cultural history of personality testing. And that was very interesting to me. I found that topic interesting because I’m interested in why we are the way we are, how we think about the way we are and how that interacts with what society tells us we are and who we should be.

And personality testing seemed to me like a really interesting example of society creating these categories, which people often embrace, you know? And after writing this book that was critical of personality tests, I heard from many people who love the Myers-Briggs personality tests, for example, and who felt that it made everything… made the whole world makes sense to them, made themselves legible to themselves and others in ways that hadn’t been possible for them before.

But I do see myself not just as reporting science and the findings of science, but often acting as a kind of social critic. And I really wanted people to stop and think about whether the categories of personality psychology were really an adequate way to describe the fullness and the richness of their humanity, you know?

And then my second book was different from that. It was called Origins, and it was about the science of prenatal influences. And there, I was interested in making an intervention in the long-running nurture-nature debate. It seemed to me like there was, this nine-month period that didn’t get enough attention as a wellspring of who we are and how we turn out in life because there’s so much focus on the moment of conception when this genetic blueprint gets laid down and the moment of birth when nurture by the parents begins, conventionally speaking. But there were nine months in between those two events that actually turn out to be really consequential in shaping our future health and perhaps things like our future personality and how we handle stress and things like that.

So, to me, those two books as different as they seem on the surface were really investigations into the same question, which is: what makes us the way we are. And I would even say that this latest book, The Extended Mind, is just a continuation of that question or that search for an answer to that question. In this case, I was interested in how we understand the question of intelligence and how we understand the activity of thinking and, you know, conventionally… again, this is where the social criticism comes in. Conventionally, we think of thinking as happening inside the brain. And I was very intrigued by the concept originally introduced by two philosophers that actually thinking happens out in the world. It happens throughout our bodies, you know? Below the neck. It happens in our physical surroundings, it happens in our interactions with other people. And that to think of thinking as happening only inside our heads is really limiting and constraining and also just simply an inaccurate picture of how thinking happens.

Jorge: I would expect that there are people listening in who hear that we have this perception that thinking happens inside the brain and they go, “Well, yes! That’s where it happens!” Right?

Annie: Right.

Jorge: Many of us were brought up with that impression. And as you’re suggesting here, the work of particularly Andy Clark and David Chalmers, the philosophers you were referring to, points to there being more to that, right? The way that I understood it is it happens in concert between the nervous system, the body, our senses, and the environment around us. And other actors in the environment, yes?

Where we think

Annie: Yes. And I want to be clear to those who would be skeptical of this concept that the brain is still central to thinking. It’s not that the brain is not the locus of thinking; it’s just that it’s not… the process of thinking, the argument goes, is not limited to the brain. And in fact, the brain is really orchestrating resources from outside itself, from the body, from the physical surroundings, from other people.

And that that is a broader and more expansive view of the thinking process than imagining that it all happens in the brain. So the brain is still central, but I think we can change our notion of what role the brain plays: less a kind of workhorse that’s doing all of the work itself and more of like an orchestra conductor that’s bringing in resources from outside itself and coordinating them and assembling them into this dynamic process of thinking.

Jorge: Yeah. I love that. The notion that it’s not that the brain is driving the show, perhaps, but like it’s orchestrating things. I like that way of thinking about it. The old distinction, the old way of looking at the way the mind works, if we might call it brain-centric, has led to designs for the world that we live in, right? And you get into several of those in the book. I’m wondering if you could talk a bit more about how that kind of brain-centric way of thinking about the mind has led to the various structural aspects of the world that we work and learn and play and interact in.

Metaphors: the brain as computer

Annie: Yes. Yeah, I do see evidence of that brain-centric view all over the place. Once you start noticing it, it’s hard not to see. But you know, I just a moment ago we were talking about various metaphors for the brain and we understand the brain and it’s working through metaphor. And one of the most common metaphors, and I’m sure your listeners have encountered it, is the brain as a computer. And that notion got its start in the cognitive revolution of the 20th century, and it’s been very fruitful as a kind of paradigm for exploring the brain and inventing all the applications and technology that are so useful to us these days.

But it is very limiting in its capacity to explain to ourselves what the brain is, what it does. I always like to say we’re more like animals than we are like machines. You know, the brain is a biological organ. I mean, I know this is obvious, but we really can get very entranced in a way by this metaphor of “brain as computer.” The brain is a biological organ that evolved to carry out tasks that are often very different from the tasks that we expect it to execute today. And so, our misunderstanding of what the brain is leads us, as you were saying, Jorge, to create these structures in society — in education and in the workplace, in our everyday lives — that really don’t suit the reality of what the brain is.

I mean, I’m thinking about how, for example, we expect ourselves to be productive. Whether that’s in the workplace, or what we expect our students to do in school. You know, we often expect ourselves to sit still, don’t move around, don’t change the space where you’re in. Don’t talk to other people. Just sit there and kind of work until it’s done. And that’s how we expect ourselves to get serious thinking done. And that makes sense if the brain is a computer, you know? You feed it information and it processes the information, then it spits out the answer in this very linear fashion.

But that’s not at all how the brain works. Because the brain is so exquisitely sensitive to context, and that context can be the way our bodies are feeling and how they’re moving, that context can be literally where we are situated and what we see and what we experience around us, and that context can be the social context: whether we’re with other people, whether we’re talking to them, how those conversations are unfolding — all those things have an incredibly powerful impact on how we think.

And so, when we expect the brain to function like a computer, whether that’s in the office or in the classroom, we’re really underselling its actual powers — its actual genius — and we’re cutting ourselves off from the wellsprings of our own intelligence, which is the fact that we are embodied creatures embedded in an environment and set in this network of relationships. So, it really… we’re really kind of leaving a lot of potential intelligence on the table when we limit our idea of what the brain is in that way.

Metaphors: the brain as muscle

Jorge: There’s another metaphor that you also discuss in the book, this idea of the brain as a muscle.

Annie: Yes.

Jorge: Which is a… because the idea of the brain as a computer that processes has some kind of input and then generates an output, I think that we can all relate to. But what is this notion of the brain as muscle and why is it wrong?

Annie: Yeah. This is an interesting one because although it’s so common to think of the brain as a computer, it’s not like people have… well, this is… that was wrong. I was going to say, it’s not like people are passionately defending the metaphor of brain as computer. But in fact, there are a lot of people in artificial intelligence and other areas that are quite attached to that idea.

But it is also the case that there are many people who seem very attached to the idea of the brain as muscle. And this, too has a pretty long history, longer than the brain as computer, obviously. You can find tracks from the 19th century by medical authorities telling people that your brain is like a muscle and just like a physical muscle when you exercise it more, it gets stronger. So, there’s a very long history of that idea. But more recently, it was really brought into the public consciousness by the work of the psychologist, Carol Dweck, who introduced this idea of the growth mindset. And the growth mindset is very popular and very beloved for many good reasons.

I mean, Carol Dweck is a very accomplished scientist and I very much admire her and her work. And what appeals to people about the growth mindset and its metaphor of the brain as muscle is that it’s a very hopeful message to give to a student or to an adult. You know, that intelligence is not a fixed quantity. It’s actually something that you can grow, you can cultivate through effort and through practice. And of course, there’s a lot to that. And there’s a lot that’s positive about the growth mindset.

I do have some issues with that metaphor because again, it’s a very brain-centric kind of metaphor. It focuses all of its firepower on the brain on the idea that exercising the brain is how we make it stronger. And I think in a way it limits people who are very attached to the growth mindset because if simply exercising the brain harder and harder isn’t getting you what you want, there aren’t many other options.

And what I so enjoy about the theory of The Extended Mind is that it offers so many choices and options and avenues, you know? It may be that if sitting and thinking harder and harder is not working for you, it may be that you need to stand up and move around and maybe act out the problem that you’re wrestling with. Or you may need to go outside and spend some time in nature, restoring your attention. Or you may need to engage in a social activity with another person, like telling them a story about what you’re struggling with or engaging in a debate with them. And so, there are so many ways that we can draw on our environment and on our own bodies and on our own relationships to think better. And so that to me is what the theory of The Extended Mind adds to the conversation.

Jorge: Yeah. What I’m hearing there is that the notion that intelligence can be grown is not wrong per se, it’s that we’ve been limiting intelligence to just the one organ up here, right?

Annie: Yes. And I do notice there’s a wonderful new paper by Carol Dweck and some other researchers that’s really explicitly recognizing this and saying that growth mindset needs to be practiced within an environment, a context, that supports actual growth and development. So, I think the idea that context is so important to our thinking is really, you know, it’s having its moment, I hope. And I actually think the pandemic has played a role in that, you know? Because so many of us have spent the past 18 months as almost like brains in front of screens, and we’ve been cut off from many of the mental extensions that normally pre-pandemic would, in normal life, would have helped us with our thinking, like being able to move around and even commuting or traveling in ways that are stimulating and being in new places and interacting with people in person. In a lot of cases, we’ve been missing those things and we’ve felt the impact on our thinking, you know? We’re not thinking as well as we would like to, and it’s not for lack of working our brains hard, because we have been doing that. But that’s not enough. We really need the support of those external resources that have been harder to access during the pandemic.

Interacting in information environments

Jorge: I wanted to ask you about that. The tagline of this show is that it’s about how people organize information to get things done, and the notion there is that we are living… even before the pandemic, we were living in a society where so many of our interactions are moving from — let’s call them real-world contexts — to contexts that we instantiate in these small glass rectangles we carry around in our pockets, right? And the glass rectangle, when compared to real life, is a relatively limited channel.

Annie: Yeah.

Jorge: And I’m wondering how awareness of our embodied intelligence can help us think better, act more soundly. I’m wondering if there are any lessons from that that could help us become more effective users of these digital systems that are currently going through these very narrow channels.

Annie: Yeah, well, I think we do need to think carefully about how we use these devices because they really… they can’t be beat, in terms of convenience and ease. And I think we’ve all experienced that during the pandemic, that actually all those meetings that we were going into the office for, or traveling across the country to meet people, they can happen online and they probably will continue to happen online more than they did before.

I do want to urge people to be aware of what the trade-off is. You know, it is easy, it is convenient. It’s… from my reading of the research, I have a real bias in favor of in-person interactions because the signal, as you… I think you used the word “signals”… you know, the signals that we’re exchanging with other people as we talk, as we spend time in each other’s presence, they’re so much richer than when we are communicating with each other across the screen digitally. This is part of our brain-centric culture that we are so focused on simply the words that people say, like the actual information being conveyed in this very explicit sense, that that’s what we focus on. And we feel like, “okay, well, that got the job done.” You know, that interactive virtual meeting, that got the job done because we exchanged the appropriate words. But there’s so much more going on when two people relate to each other in person.

And I wouldn’t want us to think that the sort of pale simulacrum of human interaction that can happen online– I wouldn’t want us to think that that can ever substitute for being together in person. And not just two people, but in particular, the power of a group of people getting together– that is very hard to simulate online.

So, I think you had asked, Jorge, about not just about the compromises we make in terms of our social interactions when we’re online, but also this embodied aspect. You know, it’s very easy when we’re using our devices to think of ourselves as just a brain in a vat, a brain looking at a screen. When, as I’ve been saying, so much of our intelligence emerges from the fact that we are embodied, you know? And that’s easy to forget when we’re so in this head space of using our computers and our devices.

And so one other thing I would say is just to… first of all, to take time to make sure that you’re not on your devices all the time and that you do remember that you have a body and use it and tune into it and all those things. But also if it’s possible, look for technology and look for applications that involve your body. And that there are applications and technologies like that, that don’t require you to just be sort of like a face or a head in the screen, but that do involve the body to a greater degree. And we can make choices about, you know, which technologies we use in that sense.

Jorge: Is one aspect of that getting greater awareness of how our bodies function? And I’m thinking of things like the Apple Watch, which I’m wearing, and this notion that all of a sudden my movements get quantified as this exercise ring that I either close or not, depending on how much I move my body during the day. Does that serve to bring us closer to our awareness? Or does it somehow build a distance by abstracting it out into a number that we’re aiming for?

Annie: Yeah, that’s a super interesting question. I am not sure, actually. I mean, I think I’d be in favor of any technology that makes us more conscious of our bodies and more conscious of our movements, but then again, as you say, is there a cost in terms of moving away from the actual embodied experience of being a body and turning that into a number or, and then turning the number into a goal, you know? That you’re either meeting or not meeting. I think there’s definitely potential there for a kind of detachment from the body instead of tuning into the body. That’s a really interesting question. I think we’re living in a moment where so many of these things are unknown and unsettled and it’s really… it’s going to be a process of learning how these technologies affect us and how they affect us long-term you know? Which no one can answer except for in the long-term.

Jorge: Right. The question came to mind as I was reading the book. And, just for folks who may not have read it, the book is divided into three parts. The first part has to do with thinking with the body. So that includes things like gestures. I came away with a new understanding of what… like I’m moving my hands right now, right? And I came away with an understanding of why I do that. The second part deals with thinking with environments, and the third with thinking with other people. And in the first part of the book that deals with thinking with the body, you covered this concept of interoception which in my notes, I put down as kind of like learning to listen to your gut.

Annie: But not just your gut!

Jorge: Well, no — colloquially, right?

Annie: Yes, colloquially.

Jorge: It’s like, check in with your body. Are you feeling anxious? You know, are you feeling… and as someone who designs digital environments for a living, it made me wonder. It’s like, is my work making people somehow fall out of tune with being able to listen to their bodies? And how might we move to create digital experiences that make better use of the full experience of being human, which is not constrained to these small rectangles that we tap, tap, tap? Right?

Designing (dis)embodied experiences

Annie: Yes. Well, it’s a very powerful cultural current — and a very old one — to separate mind and body and to elevate mind above body and to believe that mind is kind of pure and cerebral and the body is irrational and unruly and ungovernable and has nothing to contribute to intelligent thought. Whereas I think the more we learn, the more scientists research the connections between mind and body, the more we see that that is not at all the case. And I think, in our culture that is so achievement-oriented, that’s so much about getting things done, it’s so easy. And I fall into this trap myself, in the middle of a busy hectic day, to be focused so much on the external world and all this information flowing in for us to process, and to forget about the fact that we have this internal world as well from which there’s a constant flow of internal sensations and cues and signals that’s always there, but we’re not tuning into it. We don’t take the time. We don’t take the quiet space that we need to tune into that internal world. And what that means is that we’re missing out on all the information and the wisdom and the accumulated experience that can really only be communicated to us through those internal signals because so much of what we know is not really accessible consciously.

And the way that we become aware of this vast repository of patterns and regularities and experience that we do possess, the way we become aware of it, is through the body kind of tapping us on the shoulder or tugging on our sleeve with these internal cues and saying, “Hey! Pay attention to this!” Or, “this is what happened last time, and this is how it turned out.” You know, all this kind of information that we have access to, but we’re so used to pushing that away, and to believing that the body is actually a kind of a barrier to intelligent thought rather than a conduit to intelligent thought, you know? We think we have to sort of power through and like push away those annoying or inconvenient bodily sensations when really tuning into them would enrich our thinking so much.

Jorge: Yeah, sometimes it’s time to go for a walk or to take a nap. Right?

Annie: Oh, it’s always time to take a nap! I’m a big fan of naps.

Annie’s thinking environment

Jorge: I want to ask you about your own processes and how working on this subject has changed the way that you approach your own work. In the book you describe the writing process of Robert Caro, who has written some amazing biographies. I remember reading the one about Robert Moses and having my mind blown at just how rich and the big that book is, right?

Annie: Yes.

Jorge: And, the way that you describe it in the book, these books that Caro writes are just have so much stuff in them that it’s not something that you can hold in your “meat computer.”

Annie: Right.

Jorge: So he has this corkboard in his office, this four-by-ten corkboard, where he kind of outlines the book. And I got the sense that his office is part of his writing apparatus– but not just because it gives him a place that shields him from the elements, right? And I’m wondering about your own thinking and writing environment and if it has changed at all as a result of doing this work.

Annie: Yeah, I write in the book that I don’t think that I could have written this book, which was a very ambitious project that involves so, so many journal articles and books and interviews and things. So much information to synthesize and put together. I don’t think that I could have pulled it off if I had not applied the various strategies that I write about in the book. So, it was a really kind of meta experience.

But you mentioned Robert Caro and his process of laying out the ideas and themes in his book on this really big wall-sized cork board. And I love that example because of how he uses it. You know, he’s able to walk along this cork board move in and move out, and physically navigate through this three-dimensional landscape of ideas that he’s pulling together for each of his books. And to me, that’s such a beautiful example of how when we remember what the brain evolved to do. And when we think about how we adapt this stone-age organ to the kind of tasks that we require of it today, we can see that it’s really powerful to harness our natural and evolved strengths, which include physical navigation and spatial memory. When we can harness those in the service of these very complex cognitive activities that we undertake today, it just gives our ability to think this enormous boost.

You know, as we were saying earlier, the brain evolved to do different things from what we expect it to do today. And two things that it evolved to do really effortlessly and easily and powerfully is manipulate physical objects and navigate, as I was saying, through a three-dimensional landscape. These are things that we’re just naturally good at as human beings. And so, the more we can turn abstract ideas and information into physical objects that we can manipulate. And I’m thinking here about like Post-It notes that you can move around and redistribute at will. And the more we can turn ideas — abstract ideas and information — into a physical landscape that’s big enough for us to bodily interact with, then the more we’re harnessing those embodied resources that are a part of our sort of heritage as human beings. We don’t get any of the benefits of those embodied resources when we try to do it all in our heads, you know?

So, I do have a giant Caro-inspired cork board in my office. I do make profligate use of Post-It notes because there was just too much here to wrap my head around. And I really needed to externalize my thought. Scientists call it offloading cognition — cognitive offloading. I needed to offload those ideas, put them out into physical space, move them around, and move myself around in relation to them, in order to pull off this very challenging mental task of writing this book.

Jorge: And what I’m hearing there is that there is something about the physical nature of that experience and the fact that your body is in that room, that matters here. Because there is software — thinking of like Miro or Mural — that simulates a whiteboard with sticky notes. What I’m getting out of it is that it’s simulating the kind of aesthetics of the thing, but it’s still constraining it within the glass rectangle, right?

Annie: Yeah, that’s interesting. I do think that software and other technological applications can learn from what we know about how humans think in embodied and environmentally embedded ways. Certainly, there are lessons there for people who are designing software, but I think you’re right that such a program might sort of emulate the look of using Post It notes on a big corkboard, but it does lose some of the functionality just simply because it’s not going to be as big as the format that I’m talking about. And it’s not gonna involve that material and tactical kind of experience of literally moving things around, which I think offers its own enhancement to the thinking process.

Jorge: Yeah, and surely that’s what the folks who are researching things like augmented reality are really after, overlaying the information onto our physical environments.

Closing

Jorge: Well, this has been super insightful and, as I said, I love the book and I recommend it to everyone, but especially to people who are designing software and interactive experiences. It covers a subject matter that I think everyone in this field should be aware of. So where can folks follow up with you?

Annie: So, I have a website. It’s www.anniemurphypaul.com. I’m also really active on Twitter and I encourage people to find me there. My handle is @anniemurphypaul. Yeah, and I’d love to hear in particular from your listeners and from people who do this kind of work because I do think there are so many connections between designing — literally, designing the experience that someone has online — and The Extended Mind. I mean, I just think there’s such an enormously potentially productive overlap between those two things, and I’d love to hear about their own thoughts.

Jorge: Well, you’ve heard it, folks! Please reach out to Annie and let her know because this is important stuff. Thank you so much, Annie, for being on the show.

Annie: Oh, thank you, Jorge. This has been fantastic. I’ve really enjoyed talking with you.