The Extended Mind, by Annie Murphy Paul

Why I read it 

My education hero, and fellow Crystal Palace fan, Doug Lemov, tweeted that the excellent Annie Murphy Paul was looking for people to read her book in its run up to publication. A combination of Doug’s recommendation, plus the fascinating subject matter of the book, made this an easy decision, and Annie kindly accepted my request to read The Extended Mind. Due to lots of work commitments, I got behind on my review, but I’m delighted to share my thoughts now and hope you’ll take the time to read the book, too.

In summary

Annie Murphy Paul argues that countless studies have been conducted on how thinking happens ‘only inside the brain’, and that much less attention has been paid to the way people use the world to think. The Extended Mind is the term used to describe how we interact with things beyond our brain in order to aid its thinking and growth.  Examples include how physical places can have an effect on how we think or feel, in addition to movements and gestures, working in groups, and using imitation.

Each idea is explored in turn, with the author using studies and anecdotes to demonstrate the benefits of understanding the extended mind, or in other words to ‘take better advantage of the world outside our brains’.

Key takeaways

  1. Gestures can support understanding and learning: Paul refers to studies, and a fascinating anecdote about a maths teacher, to demonstrate how gestures can be matched with words or terms to help understand or memorise them. When the teacher in question, Brendan Jefferys, noticed that students were struggling with complex terms, he assigned each one a certain gesture. The theory is that the gestures are essentially ‘load lightening’, taking away cognitive strain to focus on the learning at hand, which makes it more accessible.
  2. Room with a view: studies found that working in a room with a natural view allowed call-centre workers to handle calls 6-12% faster, while they scored 10-25% higher in mental function and memory recall tests. This is not good news for my office without any windows!
  3. The power of nature on our brains: it’s not just having a view that helps: we are wired to thrive outdoors, and we don’t just enjoy being in nature more, it actually helps us to think better! Paul states that being in natural, outdoor environments helps to relieve stress and balances our equilibrium, which in turn makes our thinking more effective. There are countless examples in this section of the book about studies which prove how these natural spaces help us to thrive, for example a study showing that people who spent 90 minutes outdoors became less preoccupied with the negative aspects of their lives, compared to those who didn’t. I could name 5 other insights about the power of nature on our brains in this chapter, and it felt validating to explore the different ways that nature actually helps us to think, beyond the ‘feeling’ that it’s nice to be outside.
  4. Belonging in a space: when sports teams play at home, their testosterone rises with the ownership of their home turf. But in workplaces, too, we feel a sense of belonging, safety, and ownership in our usual patch; workers experience themselves as more capable and confident, and they are more efficient. One fascinating example is that those who negotiate deals in their own space claim 60-160% more than the visiting party. Paul quotes Professor Benjamin Meagher and his theory that our brains associate our usual, preferred spaces with the memories of what we’ve learnt and achieved there before; in Paul’s words, our brains get an ‘assist from the structure embedded in its environment’. In Meagher’s, ‘our cognition is distributed across the entire setting’.
  5. The Imitation Game: Studies show that imitation is an effective method to succeed, in a variety of ways. Paul looks at the benefits of imitation, from how looking at examples from others helps us to filter out a variety of options, to avoiding common pitfalls, to saving time, effort, and resources that are required to innovate. Again, there are some wonderful examples, here.

Favourite quote

Sorry, I’m going to carry on banging the nature drum as it was the section of the book that resonated the most.

‘The respite from insistent cognitive demands that nature provides, gives our supply of mental resources an opportunity to renew and regenerate. These resources are finite and are soon exhausted – not only be the clamor of urban living, but also by the stringent requirements of academic and professional work.’

Question and reflect

  • How often do we think about the world around us: how spaces and places can affect not only how much we enjoy thinking, but also improve our thinking drastically? Equipped with this knowledge, how can we create spaces in our lives that help our brains to thrive?
  • Dual coding is popular in teaching at the moment – reflecting on Paul’s chapter on our bodies and physical gestures helping us to think, how could we apply this to something we are teaching or learning?

Read this if…

You are interested in how we think or learn but want a slightly different approach to the other books you’ve read!

Find the book here

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