Extending My Mind in Surprising Ways
January 11, 2022
Dear Saint Mary’s Friends,
Happy New Year! We’ve been preparing to welcome students back to campus for the Spring semester, and this past weekend, they came streaming back to us! On Sunday night, when I went to my office to take care of a few things, Le Mans Circle was full of cars, and students were wheeling suitcases and lugging crates back up to their rooms. I’ve mentioned before that I love beginnings, and even this midpoint of the academic year is also a new calendar year and a new beginning.
If you are anything like me, you probably made some new year’s resolutions, and at least some of them might have been about “productivity.” Personally, I got my email inbox to zero (no small feat!), bought a new planner, and decided on some morning and evening rituals to bookend my work days in satisfying ways. But one recent morning, I went out for a long walk and found myself listening to New York Times journalist Ezra Klein interviewing Annie Murphy Paul (links below), the acclaimed science writer who helps non-experts like me to understand learning, cognition, and what it means to think outside the brain. I was captivated. I learned some lessons, and they turned my resolutions inside out. What I learned might be useful to all of you, whether you are students, parents, faculty, staff, alumnae/i or friends.
Paul’s most recent book, The Extended Mind, explores the ways the mind works contextually. Common metaphors for the brain, such as an efficient problem-solving computer, or a muscle that can be flexed, shaped, and grown, are wrong: the brain actually functions quite differently. Paul offers new metaphors, suggesting that the brain operates more like a magpie gathering twigs, string, and countless unusual objects to make its nest, or like an orchestra conductor bringing in “resources” from different parts of the ensemble, amplifying some and quieting others. In our search for heightened productivity, we tend to think we just have to keep working our brains in the same ways over and over. But when we do this, Paul explains, we are actually working against the brain rather than with it.
To work more effectively with our brains, Paul offers the fascinating concept of “mental extensions.” She demonstrates specific ways that we can “think outside the brain”: we can think with our bodies, with spaces, with other people, and with tools. So how does this work? You can read some of her notes on the book here, but I’ll give a few of her podcast examples that really spoke to me.
We can think with our bodies in a number of ways. One is simply to get up and move around and see what happens. Research shows that it is more mentally taxing to sit still than to move. And there is ample evidence that physical exercise improves our cognition and helps us to regulate our emotions. But Paul also details how our bodies learn lessons that our minds may not recognize. For example, when we find ourselves in a dangerous situation, it’s often the body that remembers, not the mind. What we call intuition or a “gut feeling” is actually, Paul says, the body “thinking.” And we can train ourselves to be more receptive to bodily knowledge.
We can also think with spaces when we choose to shift our relationship to space throughout a day: we might take a walk in nature, or move from our desk to a coffee shop or to a differently welcoming room. We’ve probably all had “eureka” moments when we solved a problem, captured an abstract concept, or generated a new idea in an unexpected place—rather than in our offices, cubicles, labs, or other daily workspaces.
One of my favorite mental extensions is thinking with other people. Paul discusses how a computer could never choose to print out its thinking, read and mark it up, ask other people to pass it through their minds and offer suggestions for improvement, and then generate a new approach to its original thinking. But people do this all the time! And finally, Paul discusses the idea of “offloading”—using tools like a simple notebook or a sketchpad to take things out of our minds and store them elsewhere. She notes that we tend to be fascinated with people who can process a lot of information inside their heads, but there’s really no reason we shouldn’t deliberately use external tools as “mind extensions” as well.
The good news? For those of us studying and working at Saint Mary’s, we have easy access to the very “extensions” that can restore our attention and return us, refreshed, to our work. We have open spaces and athletic facilities where we can move our bodies and get the mental benefits of that activity. We have a campus that is truly a sanctuary, with trees, birds, wildlife, gardens, sacred spaces, and miles of nature trails—and we can avail ourselves of all of it. We are surrounded by other smart people, and we can test our own ideas through their minds, perhaps looking explicitly for diversity of thinking to help us craft or hone or even change our own perspectives. And we can choose some low-tech ways of offloading some of our mental burden, whether those are notebooks or white boards or other materials. There’s still other work for us to do as well. For example, one area of Paul’s book that I haven’t touched on involves how spaces that reinforce our sense of belonging also act as mental extensions. Belonging and mattering are major areas of focus for us here on campus and can only improve the already rich creative environment of Saint Mary’s.
I didn’t begin my walk with that podcast thinking of the body, nature, other people, or tools as “the raw materials of intelligent thought,” as Annie Murphy Paul calls them. But I did find myself revising my new year’s resolutions—resolving to pay attention to my bodily experience, to let myself “waste” a little time on what feels like leisure, to talk more with other people about my thoughts, to appreciate even more deeply the landscapes of the Saint Mary’s campus, and to see how all of this influences the landscapes of my mind.
I hope that each of you can “extend” your mind too in some new and invigorating ways in 2022.
Katie Conboy, Ph.D.