The Extended Mind: The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain
Author: Annie Murphy Paul
Table of contents
Our culture considers that the brain is where the entirety of our thinking takes place. In reality our thinking takes place in a larger context, encompassing:
- the feelings and movements of our bodies.
- the physical spaces we're in.
- other people's minds when we interact with them.
3 areas of study have shown the importance of resources outside of the brain to our thinking processes:
- Embodied cognition: how the physical body influences our thinking, e.g. how hand gestures make our speech more fluent and improve our conceptual understanding.
- Situated cognition: how the environment we're in influences our thinking, e.g. how some places give us a sense of control that improves our performance.
- Distributed cognition: how groups of people work together, coordinating their expertise as transactive memory, able to produce results beyond each member's individual contribution - the study of collective intelligence.
Clark and Chalmers paper "The Extended Mind" asked where the mind stops and the rest of the world begins. They argued the assumption that mind is solely within our brain is misguided. Outside elements can act as extensions, allowing us to think in ways beyond the capability of our brain alone. They focussed on how technology can extend the mind, which the later popularity of smartphones being used to supplement their users memories brought to life.
Research suggests that our ability to think intelligently is worsened by the focus on how we can use our brains more.
We must learn to skilfully engage with entities outside of our heads; our feelings, movements, physical spaces and other people's minds. These "extra-neural resources" will help us improve in terms of focus, comprehension and imaginative creation to a level beyond the capabilities of our brain alone.
The human brain has limits in terms of its ability to:
- pay attention.
- manage abstract concepts.
- persist at difficult tasks.
- grasp counter-intuitive ideas or logical reasoning.
However it is very good at:
- sensing and moving the body.
- moving through space.
- connecting with other people.
Today's world is complex, full of non-intuitive information predicated on concepts and symbols. The gaps between these demands and what our brains are capable of is growing.
The risk is concluding that we are simply not smart enough or have insufficient grit and determination.
The way we educate and train people is focused on improving in-brain thinking. We're taught to sit still, work quietly and think hard. We learn skills such as memorising information, internal reasoning and deliberation, self-discipline and self-motivation.
The brain as a computer metaphor
ENIAC, the world's first general purpose digital computer, was often described as an electronic brain when it was launched in 1945. But in more recent times the analogy has been reversed, and the human brain is now described as being like a computer.
This metaphor implies that brains:
- are self-contained information processing machines.
- have measurable attributes that are equivalent to RAM and processing speed that are comparable to other brains.
- perform differently to each other; some are simply better - equivalent to computers with more memory or processing power.
The brain as a muscle metaphor
This later metaphor considers the brain to be more like a muscle in that it changes and increases in strength when you use it. Dweck's "growth mindset" originates here, with the belief that concerted mental effort can make you smarter.
Both of these metaphors share the assumptions that:
- The mind is a discrete entity, stored within your skull.
- This thing determines how well someone is able to think.
- Its ability can be measured, compared and ranked.
These assumptions suit our society's cultural emphasis on individualism. They also are friendly to our default psychology of essentialism; it seems a fairly universal human belief that every entity we encounter has some inner essence that fundamentally makes it what it is.
Throughout history brains have always been compared to whatever the newest machine of the day was - hydraulic pumps, mechanical clocks, steam engines etc.
The brain as a magpie metaphor
In reality our brains are more like magpies, creating their products out of materials they find around them.
- Thought occurs outside of the skull too, using resources external to the brain.
- The kinds of materials available in the outside world affect the nature and quality of the thoughts.
- The capacity to think well - intelligence - is a shifting state that depends on access to resources outside of the brain and the knowledge of how to use them.
This metaphor provides many practical ways of improving how well we think. This is necessary in today's world where we must process more information, of a more specialised and abstract nature, that comes at us faster. We did not evolve to learn calculus, the financial markets or climate change.
Engagement with the mental demands of modern life, along with improved nutrition, betting living conditions and lower exposure to diseases has allowed us to increase in average IQ score for as long as we have been measuring it. But this increase in IQ has slowing down, perhaps stopping or declining in some countries such as Finland, Norway, or Britain. One theory is that we've now pushed our mental equipment as hard as it is biologically possible to.
Scientists find little evidence that brain training improves general cognitive performance on anything other than the specific exercises that the training involves. The only way we currently know to get smarter is to get better at thinking outside the brain.
Some themes are commonly found in people's views of the extended mind:
- Our technological devices can extend our minds, but they can also cause us to think less intelligently (for instance by distracting us with clickbait). Often the designers of smartphones etc. forget that users have biological bodies, live in physical spaces and interact with other people. Technology should aim to let us leverage extra-neural resources.
- Usually we think of experts as being high IQ, high focus individuals who exert great personal mental brain effort on the tasks they work on. In fact experts typically do more experimenting, testing and backtracking than other, making use of their bodies, physical space and their relationships with other people.
- There is inequality in extensions of our brain. Our schools and workplaces are predicated on the assumption that some people can think more intelligently than others, because they have smarter brains. Research suggests in fact it's because they are better able to extend their minds. But access to the extensions that help us think well - green spaces, agency of one's workspace, connections to informed third-parties etc. - is highly unequal. We must consider how differing levels of access shapes the thinking of other people.
Part 1 - Thinking with our bodies
Chapter 1: Thinking with sensations
Interoception is the awareness we have of the inner state of our body.
Our organs, muscles and bones generate these sensations which are then channeled to the insula part of the brain. They're merged with streams of information from our consciousness and sensory inputs to produce a general sense of how you feel at any given moment, and a sense of what actions are necessary to maintain your inner balance.
People have very different levels of interoceptive awareness. It can be measured by checking how accurately people can identify the instant that their heart beats without feeling for a pulse.
Financial traders with greater sensitivity to their interoceptive signals are more successful, moreso than those with higher education or intellect.
Interoceptive awareness can be cultivated, giving us access to knowledge that we already hold within us but usually does not permeate our consciousness. This may help us be more resilient to setbacks, to savour and manage our emotions better and to connect to others with sensitivity and insight.
The heart, and not the head, leads the way.
Our conscious minds cannot process the huge amount of information we are exposed to in the world. But our unconscious mind automatically collects and stores large volumes of this complex information, much more quickly and comprehensively than our conscious mind can.
It applies a pattern-matching process that can make us feel that we know things even if we can't fully articulate what or how we know it. When a relevant pattern is detected, our interoceptive faculty is alerted; we might feel a shiver, a sigh, an intake of breath or a tensing of the muscles. The body guides the brain.
People who are more aware of their bodily sensations are better at using this non-conscious knowledge.
Mindfulness mediation is one way of enhancing this awareness, particularly the "body scan" part of the process. The aim is to become aware of all the feelings that arise in your body in a non-judgemental fashion. Next, you label each of them with a name. This helps us regulate our feelings, understand where they come from and prevent overwhelm. For best effect you should come up with as many terms as you can for what you're feeling, and be as granular as possible.
Counter-intuitively, the body can be more rational than the brain - it does not suffer from the same cognitive biases.
By cultivating "interoceptive learning" we can learn first how to sense, label and regulate our internal signals, and then to link these feelings we have to what is happening in the outside world.
Keeping a journal of decisions you have to make, the internal sensations you experience as you consider the options, and then the choice you make along with any accompanying sensations may help develop this skill.
Our interoceptive awareness can also increase our resiliency.
Commonly we think resiliency, grit, etc. comes from our brain overriding an unwilling body. But it's the other way around; resilience is based in our awareness of the sensations from our body as it constantly monitors have much energy we have vs how much we will need to take future necessary actions. These cues allow us to understand when we can push ourselves onwards.
People with low resilience tend to have worse interoception.
The brain consumes a lot of energy - improving our cognitive resilience helps us tackle mental challenges.
Interoception can also help us have a more satisfying emotional life.
High interoception people tend both feel their emotions more intensely as well as being the manage them better.
Commonly we think it is our brain that controls our emotions, i.e. if a bear chases us in the woods our brain decides on the appropriate emotion (fear) and instructs the body to act in response (by running). But this is backwards. In reality the sensations and actions the body produces are later translated by the brain into an emotion. We feel fear because our heart is racing and our legs have started running.
Emotions are constructed from several elements, including the signals generated by our body and the beliefs of our families and cultures about how to interpret them.
Cognitive reappraisal allows you to re-interpret an interoceptive sensation in a more useful way, for instance:
- recategorising the racing heart and sweaty palms sensations associated with nervousness as being excitement. Asking people to tell themselves they were excited improved the performance and pleasure of people doing nerve-wracking tasks.
- Stress can be recategorised as being productive coping. Informing students that stress makes us more alert and motivated improved their test scores.
The mechanisms reappraisal works via involve at least a release of hormones and change in brain functioning such that mental resources can be redirected from e.g. anxiety to areas associated with performing the tasks at hand.
People with high interoceptive awareness benefit the most from reappraisal. The emotion you aim to reappraise towards must be associated with feelings similar to what you actually feel.
Interoception also helps us connect with other people's emotions. When interacting with other people we unconsciously mimic their expressions, gestures, posture, vocal pitch etc. Due to interception, this allows us to understand better what someone else feels because we feel it in ourselves.
When people cannot mimic each other (e.g. if injected with Botox, which induces some paralysis), they cannot understand each others' feelings as well.
People with high interoceptive awareness mimic other people more and are better at interpreting their feelings.
When we see someone experiencing physical harm it activates the areas of the brain that are involved in sensing our own pain.
Clinical psychologists are trained to read their own body's signals to help understand what patients are feeling. Likewise we can all enhance our "social interoception".
Interoceptive attunement is enhanced by:
- Looking our conversational partner in the eye.
- Briefly touching their hand or arm.
When we feel rejected or excluded we tend to shift our focus away from our body's feelings. It would likely be better to alternatively alternate between focussing on our own inner feelings as well as external social cues.
The bidirectional flow of information between our body and brain may also be the basis of our sense of self, with the continual flow of internal sensations we receive giving us a sense of personal continuity
Chapter 2: Thinking with Movement
Our visual sense is enhanced when we are physically active, particularly that related to objects appearing in the periphery of our vision. Radiologists who checked images whilst on a treadmill detected a higher % of irregularities in them.
Physical fitness supports cognitive function.
Research suggests that doing a single session of physical activity can enhance our cognition in the short term. The effects depend on the intensity and type of the movement.
Today's hunter-gatherers do > 14x the amount of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity as the average American. A lot of that is due to the modern emphasis on academic learning and knowledge work, and our misguided ideas that to think well we should sit still.
Children spend at least 50% of the school day sitting. Adults sit for more than 2/3 of the average workday.
We generally see sitting still as associated with steadiness, seriousness, and industriousness, with being able to keep still being seen as a virtue. But in reality the attempt to suppress the natural urge to move directs some of our attention and behavioural capabilities away from the task we are trying to achieve.
We make constant low-intensity movements when standing as opposed to sitting, expending more energy and improving our cognitive functioning.
Small movements can help us control our level of physiological arousal, which may be especially important for people with attention deficit disorders. The more children with ADD move, the better they can think. It's misguided to require children to stop moving before they can focus and do their work.
The amount of physical stimulation needed to keep alert differs between people. Fidgeting is our mechanism for making these adjustments. Rather than trying to manage our mental activity with our brain we should often utilise the movement of our bodies - "embodied self-regulation".
Changing what the body does can change our feelings, perceptions, and thoughts
Fidgeting may also improve our mood, making us more flexible and creative. It may use enough mental bandwidth such that we focus on the task at hand, however boring.
Items people fiddle with have many different textures, in comparison to our typical sensory experiences at work of a smooth, hard keyboard and mouse.
Moderate-intensity exercise done for a moderate length of time improves our cognition during and immediately after the activity, including increasing our:
- ability to focus attention and resist distraction.
- verbal fluency.
- cognitive flexibility.
- problem-solving abilities.
- decision-making abilities.
- working memory.
- long-term memory for what is learned.
This might happen via heightened arousal, increased brain flood flow and the release of neurochemicals that promote the growth of neurons.
We should thus exercise right before we try to learn, create or do other types of cognitive activity.
This is what recess helps with for school children. Parents and teachers should advocate for an increase in the time children are physically active.
Rethinking how adults take breaks at work to build in physical activity would also be helpful. The intuition that we should rest the body to prepare us for the next round of intellectual work is wrong; it's exercising our body that actually puts our brains in a state conducive to knowledge-work.
There's an inverted U-shaped curve relationship between exercise intensity and cognitive function with the greatest benefits found with moderate intensity exercise.
High intensity exercise has other benefits though. When sustained over a long period it can induce "transient hypofrontality". When our resources are focused on intense physical activity the effect of our prefrontal cortex is temporarily reduced leading to a mode where ideas and impressions can combine freely and unusual thoughts surface.
Particular movements have their own aspect of meaning and can enhance our thinking processes differently.
Embodied cognition research shows that how we move our bodies influences our thoughts. We can deliberately optimise this.
Our memory for what we've seen, or especially heard, is weak compared to our ability to remember what we did, our physical actions. Linking a movement to the thing we're trying to remember enhances our ability to remember it. It links procedural memory (memories of how to do things) with declarative memories (memories of information). This leads to the "enactment effect" resulting in more accuracy in our remembering.
The ability actors have to remember long scripts is connected to how they move their bodies. Studies have shown that linking words to movements also helps non-actors, including college students and older people in assisted living facilities.
We remember information better, and may gain a deeper understanding of it, if we're moving whilst we learn it. The movement doesn't need to be a re-enactment of the information. Even having intention to move linked to a piece of information helps. Then if we repeat the movement when we want to remember the information then we become more accurate in our recall.
People who have moved in different ways go on to think in different ways
4 types of movement that can enhance thinking:
- Congruent movement: express the idea in physical form. Act out the meaning of a fact with our bodies. This can help reinforce new knowledge.
- Novel movement: help master abstract concepts by linking it to a bodily experience we've never had in the past. For example students understood torque better once they experienced it themselves.
- Self-referential movements: movements that put ourselves in the centre of what we're thinking about. We've evolved to understand ideas in terms of how they relate to us. We can leverage embodied imagination to integrate new information - Einstein imagined himself riding on a beam of light when thinking about relativity. The detached and object perspective we're encouraged to use for science actually makes it harder to learn.
- Metaphorical movements: leveraging analogy. We commonly use analogies such as "thinking outside the box" that refer to our physical being. If we carry out the respective movements it can put our mind into the analogical state. Physically acting out "thinking outside the box" made people more creative. The creativity that comes from walking might be a result of combining moving and the metaphors like "fluid thinking" and "dynamic change".
We should think about how we could integrate movement further into our daily routine - for instance using a treadmill whilst we type at our computers or attending meetings whilst walking.
Chapter 3: Thinking with gesture
Embodied cognition research has shown how people form and convey thought thoughts via hand and other motions, as well as in words The gestures do more than echo the word. Freed from the discrete nature of words they can express impressions of how things look, feel and move.
Gestures are useful when trying to persuade or recruit other people, centering the communicator in the action. Company founders who used gestures skillfully were more likely to attract funding.
Enacting abstract ideas via gestures helps an audience mentally simulate the communicator's point of view for themselves.
Gestures can provide a sense that whatever theory is being discussed is a palpable reality.
2 types of gestures:
- Symbolic: movements that express the meaning of the message.
- Beat: movements that emphasise certain points.
By reinforcing words with visual and motor cues, gestures can improve our memory. They offload information to our hands. We can better understand and communicate abstract ideas, especially those involving spatial or relational concepts.
Often gesture is wrongly considered pointless or showy.
Gesture may have been the first language humans used. Often we are not consciously aware of their influence. Today we are at least bilingual, one language of words and one of gesture.
Gestures allow us to communicate things we don't want to or know how to say.
Gestural foreshadowing explains that our hands seem to preempt what we want to say; they know our words before we consciously do ourselves.
Gestures can prime words to make them easier for us to say. When people are unable to gesture their speech is less fluent and more halting. Our memory, problem solving and explanatory skills are reduced.
Human babies become fluent in gesture before acquiring any speech. It's the first way they can understand to use one thing represent another.
The benefits on their development of talking to children are accepted. High income parents tend to talk more than low income parents and have a greater diversity and complexity or sentences. This predicts the child's later vocabulary. Research suggests that it's important to gesture to them too. Children of parents who gesture a lot also gesture a lot themselves and later have larger spoken vocabularies. High income parents tend to gesture more often and diversely than others. Differences in gesture rate may thus explain some of the educational gap based on income.
Simply asking parents to gesture more works and leads their children to gesture more too. Pointing and the use of gestures to represent something in real life are both useful.
When a child gets a new idea it often appears in their gestures first.
If there's a mismatch between what is being said and what is gestured, this is indicative of a transitional state. If education is given at this point it's especially effective.
Sometimes when we can't express a concept we're struggling with in words we can still represent it with our hands. Our own gestures can help us find the right words. We may also feel freer to try ideas via movement than via words. Once we understand a concept we gesture less and orientate our hand motions towards communicating it externally rather than helping our own thinking.
Gestures are particularly useful for understanding concepts that:
- are visual.
- include the ideas of relations between things.
- are about things we can't directly perceive.
- involve spatial concepts.
People who know sign language - whether deaf or not - have a higher ability to process visual and spatial information.
We can start by making more gestures ourselves. That will improve our own thinking and help others understand and remember what we say. When looking to learn something (especially via video) we should seek educational opportunities where you can see the teacher's hands and where they use gesture and physical movement.
When on video calls, ensure that other people can see your moving hands.
People who gesture when they teach:
- speak more fluently and articulately.
- make fewer mistakes.
- present information in a more logical and understandable way
- increase how much their students learn.
When people see us gesturing more they usually do the same. We can also simply ask them to move their hands whilst they explain something.
People who were encouraged to use gestures were better at solving spatial problems.
The well-known finding that males may have better spatial thinking abilities than females on average may be explained by a difference in typical gesture rates. Boys tend to gesture more than girls. It might be that because boys are more likely to play with spatially oriented toys and video games they end up being more comfortable in making spatial gestures. Girls were especially likely to see improved performance at spatial thinking tasks when they were asked to gesture.
We can create situations that encourage people to use their hands, e.g. asking people to improvise or providing items such as charts, diagrams or maps that encourage speakers to gesture more.
It is from the attempt of expressing themselves that understanding evolves, rather than the other way around.
The above types of gestures are spontaneous. Designed gestures can also be helpful, particularly when it comes to improving our memory. The "proprioceptive" cue - the sense that allows us to know where our body parts are positioned- when we tie our gestures to the thing we're trying to remember is powerful.
Our thinking is improved when we gesture even if we can't see our hands.
When learning a foreign language, pairing each word with a gesture can help.
Designed gestures reduce our mental load, removing it from our cognition in the same way that writing a list can. Using gestures lets us manage, manipulate and transform more information.
Hands can be a prompt, a window, a way station—but what they ought never have to be is still.
Part 2 - Thinking with our surroundings
Chapter 4: Thinking with natural spaces
We think differently depending on where we are.
We evolved to thrive in nature so natural surroundings are particular conducive to good thinking. Our senses and cognition can easily and efficiently process natural settings. Being in the recently-developed world of buildings leaves us frazzled, distracted and tired.
We only spend about 7% of our time outdoors.
Culture has transformed in recent history, yet our biology remains the same. We enjoy the same landscapes as our ancestors - people flock to natural spaces that look safe and rich in resources such as NYC's Central Park. We tend towards wide grassy areas, loose clumps or trees and water sources. We like to be able to see long distances in many directions from a safe perch. We enjoy the mystery of what is around a bend. These feel like aesthetic preferences, but in actuality they come from our evolutionarily-honed survival instincts.
Not all nature appeals to us; many natural things are threatening or unpleasant.
When we're stressed we turn to "environmental self-regulation", taking walks in nature. They restore our mental equilibrium and lower stress. The more stress someone has, the more they'll see benefits from nature.
Walking in nature can help us:
- deal with stress. Drivers on roads lined with trees handle stress better.
- out of a mental rut, lowering our tendency to ruminate over negative thoughts.
- with the mood and memory of depressed people. Many depressed people consume their mental resources by cycling through negative thoughts, reducing their ability to remember information.
- improve our focus and working memory.
- relieve the symptoms of ADHD
We have 2 styles of attention:
- voluntary, effortful attention, where we must constantly direct our focus and concentration against a stream of stimuli.
- passive attention, where our focus floats easily from object to object. Nature evokes this style of attention.
We should understand being in nature as a process of restoration. We should consider the "supply side" of the attention economy; restoring our mental resources after unnatural environments deplete them.
Going outside with an attitude of “open monitoring” - a curious, accepting, nonjudgmental response to what we see - helps restore us. Don't wait for a sunny day in an unspoilt wilderness.
When people take their phones with them into nature it adversely affects the attention enhancement effects they get.
However some apps can be useful. ReTUNE is a GPS navigation system. But instead of showing users the fastest route to their destination it's designed to show the routes that go past the most trees and flowers, where users are likely to hear the most birdsong, prioritising their well-being over speed.
The technology we use has values embedded in it. We should consider carefully whether to take them as our own.
If we could learn the details of exactly which features of nature are beneficial to our bodies and brains then we could design buildings and landscapes that actively enhance people's mood, cognition and health.
Research shows that, compared to urban settings, natural landscapes have:
- less variation in hue, mainly being green, yellow or brown.
- more saturation, areas of pure undiluted colour.
- fewer straight lines, more curves.
- clustered edges, e.g. the overlapping edges of leaves on a tree, rather than spaced out like windows on a building.
- dynamic and diffuse light.
- gentle rhythmic movement.
- muted sounds that repeat with some variation e.g. birdsong, waves.
- more visual information, less "simple", providing a stimulation humans desire.
- more coherence, fewer jarring disjunctions.
- more redundant information. The shape and colour of leaves repeat, which helps our brains make predictions. We can take it all in with a glance.
- many more fractal patterns that - the same design repeating at different scales, e.g. the fronds of a fern, clouds, mountains, etc.
We like to balance exploration with understanding. We seek variety but of an ordered kind. Nature provides this, whereas manmade setting are often biased towards one or the other.
Nature is complex but in a way that our brains can easily process with perceptual fluency. This ease provides rest and good feelings.
Looking at the type of "mid-range" fractal patterns common in nature soothes our nervous system, reducing our physiological arousal and leading to "wakefully relaxed" brain activity. The improve our ability to carry out cognitive tasks.
Pollock's later paintings exhibit a similar fractal pattern to nature.
Given time spent in nature is so beneficial and yet we spend so much time indoors, how can we make indoors more like outdoors? This has been tried in settings like hospitals where exposure to nature has been found beneficial to pain and recovery. Patients with views overlooking trees needed fewer painkillers, had fewer complications and shorter stays. Nurses judged them as having fewer negative states of mind.
Within 20-60 seconds of exposure to nature our heart rate and blood pressure drops. Our breathing becomes more even, brain activity relaxes and eye movements change. Our memory for natural scenes is more accurate, with an enhanced activation of the visual cortex and pleasure receptors in the brain.
We should include "biophilic design" into homes schools and workplaces.
Bring plants inside. Indoor plants improve employee's attention, memory and productivity and the focus of students.
There's evidence that buildings whose design is inspired by nature can provide some of the benefits to cognition that being outdoors can.
The traditional idea that the best thinking happens under unchanging light, with no distractions or glare from windows, is wrong yet influences building design even today. Changing illumination helps with alertness and regulation of our biological clock. People who experience natural light sleep better, feel more energetic and are more physically active.
In the 1970s energy crisis many windows were blocked out to save energy.
Views on nature are associated with better academic and employee performance.
Seek out "microrestorative opportunities". Taking a "microbreak" to look at flowers for 40 seconds improved cognition in one study.
Being in nature for longer periods can change how we think, experience time and consider the future. It makes delaying immediate gratification in favour of longer-term interests easier. Nature provides feelings of abundance and permanence rather than the competition induced by urban settings. Time is perceived as passing slower.
Creativity can be increased. The brains' default mode network is engaged leading to a brain state where we're receptive to unexpected connections and insights.
But taking technology like phones with us can prevent this; they're designed to seize our attention, working against this process.
The time we spend scrutinizing our small screens leads us to think small, even as it enlarges and aggrandizes our sense of self.
The huge scale of nature - oceans, mountains, the sky - gives us a feeling of awe. We feel tiny and open to a wider sense of what's possible. Awe produces more curiosity and open-mindedness. We're more willing to update our mental schemas, and less reliant on preconceived ideas and stereotypes. We feel part of a larger whole, and act more prosaically with greater altruism.
Seeing Earth from space is a particularly emotional experience. Scientists call it "the overview effect". Astronauts report a feeling that the boundaries that separate humans living on the planet vanish and they feel part of a whole.
The limitations of life in a spaceship do feel dislocating and alienating. Work is being done on how to assist the psychological well-being of astronauts. One idea that's already shown some promise is to have them grow and tend to plants onboard.
Chapter 5: Thinking with Built Spaces
For many centuries architects have thought about how to make spaces that evoke certain states of mind. The field of "neuroarchitecture" has now started to measure how the brain responds to buildings and their interiors, including how our reactions are shaped by evolution and biology.
Even so, many of us live, learn and work in spaces that are not conducive to effective thinking.
- Culturally we don't greatly respect our built environment. People believe we should be able to do our mental work well irrespective of setting.
- Considerate design takes time and money, whereas there's an incessant pressure to cut costs.
- We're sometimes subject to the bold visions of architects and designers that lean in other ways.
Studies have shown that children's behaviour is consistent and predictable. It's largely determined by the place that they're observed in rather than any individual intrinsic factor. For instance, the average child's behaviour changes radically as they move from a classroom to a hall.
Our thoughts and actions are shaped by the places we're in. It's simply not possible for us to perform optimally in some settings. But when designed well, the built environment can improve our focus, motivation and creativity, leaving us feeling enriched.
After shelter, a primary purpose of a built interior is to give us a quiet place to think, necessary because modern thinking styles don't come naturally to us. For most of human history people lived in 1-room dwellings alongside their family. As human habitations became denser, the technology of walls was created to help relieve the mental strain of being with and keeping track of the activities of dense populations of strangers. Urban residents looked for places to read, think and write alone.
The privacy afforded by walls represented a truly revolutionary extension of the mind .
Residential walls prevented us having to constantly look around to see what other people were doing, freeing up hours of undistracted time per day. A trend towards private studies emerged, "thinking rooms" that often contained meaningful or sacred objects. These became a metaphor for freedom of thought.
But in the middle of the 20th century walls started being removed from many buildings - homes, schools and offices - with the idea that they prevented "openness". At the start of the 2000s 70-80% of American officer workers were in open-plan offices.
- It's cheaper. Open-plan office space can cost 50% less per employee.
- The theory that it'd lead to increased communication, collaboration and creativity.
The Allen curve shows that working near to someone does mean you're more likely to communicate and collaborate with them. This applies even in our age of digital communication. Shared spaces such as corridors can be especially useful in promoting encounters.
But the resulting continuous distraction poses a different problem. These spaces aren't good for complex, cognitively demanding work. The brain continuously monitors its environment for danger or opportunities. Office spaces are full of particularly distracting stimuli:
- We're attuned to detect novelty. Environments that are full of activity and change are highly distracting.
- We're attuned to hearing speech, especially if we can hear what's being said. We can't help overhearing it. It uses the same brain resources that much knowledge work does. The fact our brain constantly makes predictions makes one-sided conversations, like hearing someone on talking on the phone, particularly distracting.
- Headphones don't solve the problem. The lyrics in music similarly compete for mental resources. The music is designed to grab and hold our attention
- Music with high intensity, fast tempos and a lot of variation is more distracting than low-key laid-back music.
- People's intellectual performance suffers more when they listen to music they like as opposed to music they dislike.
- We can't choose what we see - our eyes focus on anything new or in motion. Human faces are particularly distracting.
- We are sensitive to being watched. It increases our physiological arousal.
Due to the brainpower required to keep track of visual stimuli, we think better when we close our eyes.
Walls prevent us getting distracted as well as provide privacy. Contrary to the open-plan ethos, privacy is important for creativity.
- The reduction in necessary cognitive load when we're alone enables access to more mental resources. This may be more impactful for some groups of people than others.
- It allows us to experiment without being watched. When others are there we're less likely to try new things that might go wrong or look embarrassing. This effect is true even when employees are being digitally surveilled. It's not necessarily because we're scared of looking like we're not working properly, but also that being surveilled is disempowering, and disempowerment is associated with a reduction in exploration and creativity.
Good collaboration requires some discretion. Counterintuitively, employees have fewer and more superficial conversations when in spaces with no walls. When companies switch from enclosed offices to open-plan interactions between employees actually reduce during most of the day. Trust and cooperativeness also declines.
These effects are at their worst in spaces where employees have no assigned space to work at all - the increasingly common hot-desking scenario.
When we feel ownership over a space this changes us psychologically and physiologically. The effect was first seen in sports. The "home advantage" effect shows that athletes tend to do better when they're playing in their own fields, courts and stadiums.
But the effect is more general. When people are in spaces that they consider their own they:
- feel more confident and capable.
- are more efficient and productive.
- are more focused and less distractible.
- are more forceful and effective at advancing their own interests.
- operate mental and perceptual processes more efficiently.
- require less effortful self-control.
People who feel they have some control over their space perform more productively.
It's important to be able to control who enters one's space. Informal exchanges with nearby people can generate things, but their value can only be utilised via a later process of generating solutions and determining which one is best. Too much collaboration is actual harmful to that process. We're subject to social pressure when around others. The desire to conform tends to lead to OK but not great solutions.
Walls protect us from our susceptibility to social pressure as well as distraction.
Office should seek to provide a sense of ownership and control. This addresses two more of our needs - claiming an identity and belonging to a larger group.
People perform better, are more motivated and productive when they are in the presence of cues of identity and affiliation. These are the tangible signals that support our concept of ourselves, e.g. pictures that signal that we like cats. Our spaces can show off our hobbies, awards, creativity or sense of humor. They may be aimed at showing who we are to others or created simply for ourselves.
Our sense of self is fluid and dependent on the external world. To function well we must cultivate a steady identity. The things around us help us maintain that.
We each have several facets of identity - worker, spouse, friend etc. Different cues evoke different identities, bringing that identity to the foreground which affects our thoughts and behaviour. Asian girls do better on math tests when reminded of their ethnicity and worse when reminded of their gender.
The stability of physical objects also helps us regulate our emotions and mood - environmental self-regulation. They can relieve emotional exhaustion.
Nonetheless, many organisations banned the display of person items in an employee's space, either out of misguided concerns that they're distracting or due to a desire to have a certain office aesthetic.
Employees feel more committed to their company when they see themselves reflected in it.
Spaces can also affirm or deny a sense that we belong in the organisation. Members of historically marginalised or negatively stereotyped groups are particularly sensitive to these signals.
The theory of "prejudiced places" claims that environments can tax some groups' emotions, physiology, cognitive function and performance more than others. For example, a company's aesthetic promotes a certain conception of what its ideal employee is.
As physical environments have such an effect on people's behaviour, altering them might be the most effective intervention to reduce bias. Trying to change people's beliefs more directly tends to create resistance and resentment. Research on diversity workshops and training shows little efficacy.
Women in a classroom containing stereotypically male "computer nerd" objects are less likely to believe that they will succeed in the field of computer science. This is important because how you think you'll do influences your actual performance.
The concept of "ambient belonging" is the sense of how individuals fit in with a given physical environment, and how they feel like they'd fit in with the people that they imagine are in that environment. It can be expanded such that a large number of people feel like they fit in. This is done not by eliminating stereotypes but rather by introducing a more diverse set of them.
Researchers are now investigating how to create ambient belonging online. When a gender-inclusive image and statement was added to an online ad for a computer science course women were more likely to sign up. Adding a diversity statement to course pages increased how many students of lower socioeconomic status signed up.
Neuroarchitecture is exploring how our brains react to the settings they're in, e.g.
- Places with high ceilings make us more likely to think abstractly.
- Architectural designs that look like faces produce positive responses.
- Curved shapes make us feel comfortable and at ease.
Some of these effects are experienced by other species too.
As physical places influence our thinking so strongly, via custom, history and meaning, we should worry about "non-places" such as featureless shops that don't aim to shape us at all.
Chapter 6: Thinking with the Space of Ideas
Memory champions often use the "method of loci". The method involves associating every item to be remembered with a place in a familiar location such as your home. This integrates it into memory.
"Super memorisers" don't have higher intellectual ability or brain structure differences. But they do use different parts of their brain when remembering things, particularly the areas associated with spatial memory and navigation.
We all create mental maps of concepts and data as well as places. Our language reflects this: the past is "behind" us, we stay "on top" of things.
One theory suggests that the reason we can't remember much from when we were very young is because at that point we can't move through space independently, and thus lack a mental structure to adhere our memories to.
We're not good at remembering abstract information, but our brains are tuned for remembering details associated with places. Mastering this can double our capacity for remembering.
Our spatial cognition abilities can also help us think, reason, achieve insights, solve problems and produce creative ideas. They're especially powerful when operating on real, rather than imagined, space.
We tend to valorise the ability to do things in our head, e.g. respected mathematicians. But the real genius occurs when we externalise the facts and contents from our head, spreading it out in physical space, for instance over multiple computer screen or the pages of a notebook.
We can proactively alter our physical spaces to promote their "cognitive congeniality".
Offloading facts and ideas to physical spaces, e.g. by writing them down, frees up our cognitive abilities for other tasks.
Concept mapping is one way to do this, producing a visual representation of facts, ideas and how they relate to each other.
Creating a concept map has cognitive benefits:
- we reflect on what we know.
- we organise it into a coherent structure.
- we become aware of gaps in our understanding.
- we remember the material better.
- we can see the big picture without getting distracted.
- we can see how each part relates to other parts.
Oblong Industries is developing a Minority Report-like computer environment called the "Space Operating Environment".
Research has shown that large high-resolution computer displays - screens that are several feet wide and long - can be beneficial in enabling us to leverage similar navigational capacities as we would in the physical world. They:
- increase the speed we complete visualisation tasks.
- improve our abilities to find patterns.
- promote higher-order thinking.
- lead to more discoveries.
- generate broader insights.
This happens because it enables users to use their "physical embodied resources".
- peripheral vision: being able to see out of the corners of our eyes increases our efficiency at finding information and our ability to keep it in mind.
- spatial memory: our capacity to remember things based on where they are. Large or multiple displays lets us lay out information in a way that persists rather than having to hide windows to see others. People remember more information when it's presented to them on multiple monitors.
- proprioception: the sense of how and where your body is moving.
- optical flow: the stream of information our eyes get as we move about.
Small displays drain our mental capacity as they force us to keep our conceptual maps in our heads. We have to navigate virtually (scrolling, zooming etc.) rather than in the physical ways we're optimised for.
Large displays reduce the need for window management by up to 90%.
Small changes can improve things. We should prioritise tools that make use of our natural human capabilities over those that are just faster or more powerful.
Ideas can be explored in non-digital ways. Darwin kept the notes that eventually led him to the theory of evolution on paper.
When thought overwhelms the mind, the mind uses the world.
The process of taking notes itself provides an enhancement to cognition. We're forced to select what aspects to write, leading us to process what we're seeing more thoroughly. It can inspire new thoughts.
When we look back at our notes we're able to do more with them than when we hold the ideas in our head. They feel more definite and allow us to apply our physical senses to them. Seeing something in our mind's eye is not the same as seeing it on a page. We can put distance between ourselves and the content, giving us a "detachment gain", facilitating our powers of recognition.
Producing visual explanations of how systems work allows you to get a deeper understanding. The explicitness of trying to draw a diagram lets you understand which parts you don't really know and hence to fill in the gaps.
Visual representations are also more ambiguous in some ways. Once on paper we can play with them, taking it in new directions.
If wanting to generate new ideas:
- Start with a very general goal. Vagueness and ambiguity work better than explicitness and definition for generating ideas.
- Cycle: think, draw, look, rethink, redraw etc. Your eye should inform your hand, your hand should inform your eye.
- Don't judge. This interaction won't work if inhibited by self-doubt.
Creative professionals often use 3D models. These can be manipulated, viewed from various perspectives and oriented with respect to their own bodies. Watson didn't figure out the structure of DNA until he'd played with 3D models of its constituent bases.
The misguided notion that the brain is like a computer suggests that simulating a situation in your head is the same as actually experiencing that situation. Rather, people's thoughts and choices are transformed by actually physical interacting with things.
Interacting with things benefits:
- complex reasoning.
When people are able to manipulate physical objects they have:
- less cognitive load and more working memory.
- better learning and understanding.
- more motivation and engagement.
- less anxiety.
- the ability to get to the correct answer faster.
Part 3: Thinking with our relationships
Chapter 7: Thinking with Experts
Modern learning differs from traditional apprenticeships in that learners can't actually see the processes of work; processes of thinking are invisible. But 4 features of apprenticeships could be adapted to knowledge work:
- Modeling: demonstrating tasks whilst explaining them aloud.
- Scaffolding: creating opportunities for learners to try the task themselves.
- Fading: slowly removing guidance as the learner develops proficiency.
- Coaching: help the learner with difficulties they encounter.
Changes like these dramatically increased how many students passed a university course.
Work is moving from executing physical tasks towards engaging in thought processes. Novices don't know these processes well yet, but experts know them so well that it can feel natural, subconscious and hence hard to explain. We have to learn how to effectively transfer knowledge between minds. Cognitive apprenticeships are one approach.
Medical students who mimed the symptoms of neurological disorders remembered them better, had a deeper understanding, and were more motivated to learn about them.
Mimicking other people, whether conscious or unconsciously, helps us:
- understand them better.
- sense their emotions.
- feel more positive about them.
- become more empathetic and comfortable around them.
But as a society we now frown on imitation, feeling that it's childish or morally wrong. Imitating other people's thoughts risks being accused of plagiarism. This is a relatively modern turn though - part of the "cult of originality" that venerates trailblazers. Imitation used to be considered an art. Innovation has replaced it at the top of the cultural value system.
Research shows us that imitation is useful for learning new skills and improving decision quality, because:
- By copying people we implicitly have them filter what we do, drawing on their learnings of what works best.
- We can draw from several different solutions, choosing the best strategy for the moment and switching to another if needed.
- We avoid making the same errors as others already made.
- We will not be deceived; if we copy what others do then we learn their best strategies.
- We save the time, effort and resources that we'd have needed to develop our own solution.
Engaging in effective imitation is like being able to think with other people’s brains
Imitation isn't lazy or easy. It's a skill we should cultivate. We have to address the "correspondence problem" - adapting the copied solution to the details of the current situation. We need to break down and reassemble the parts of the solution, understanding the deep reasons why the original solution worked and how to apply it in a new situation; in itself a creative exercise.
The need to reduce medical errors has led hospitals to copy and adapt safety procedures from many other industries, which has led to a dramatic decrease in rates of patient death or complications.
We should recognise that imitation is already behind the success of many of the people we already admire - Steve Jobs is an example of this.
3 steps to solve the correspondence problem:
- Specify your problem and find a similar problem that has been solved.
- Determine why that solution worked.
- Figure out how your circumstances differ from those of the originally solved problem and hence how you need to adapt the original solution to your own scenario.
Many developmental psychologists think that children are able to absorb information so quickly due to their ability to imitate adults.
Roboticists are trying to transfer this ability to learn from observation to the robots they aim to train.
Human imitation is complex.
Unlike other animals, human children:
- are selective about who they imitate, preferring to copy people who proved themselves to be knowledgeable and competent.
- are very unselective about what they imitate.
- imitate in great detail, even unnecessarily so, perhaps on a "copy now understand later" basis - other species tend to copy more roughly.
Even if some of the actions imitated are technically unnecessary for the task at hand, doing so can still be beneficial socially, as it leads to the adherence of cultural customs.
Imitation is at the root of our social and cultural life
Whilst we seem to be born with a predisposition to imitate, it is possible to deliberately cultivate the skill and the ability to learn from it. Some cultures do this more than others -American culture discourages it.
Teachers and parents can be reluctant to the use of models in educating children, fearing that it'll dampen the development of creativity and originality. But the opposite might be true: seeing examples of great work is motivational and lets students understand what is possible.
Emulating model text style (e.g. journal papers) reduces cognitive load, particularly helpful when dealing with new concepts and vocabulary.
People are the most useful models. But true experts find it hard to share what they know. Their knowledge and skill has become automatic to them, giving them little insight into how they do what they do. They can only articulate around 30% of what they know. This can be improved by "re-enactive empathy", thinking about what it was like to be a beginner.
Experts tend yo:
- Chunk tasks: compressing several actions into one unit to free up their working memory.
- Know what can be ignored.
- Categorise things differently to beginners, often in terms of their deeper functionality.
This leads to 3 strategies to help experts train beginners:
- Break down each chunked step into its smallest sub-steps.
- Exaggerate the important features. This might relate to the psychological "caricature advantage" whereby we're better at recognising a caricatured face than a realistically-depicted one.
- Explicitly share the categories they use to organise information.
Technology such as eye trackers may give us more insight into how expert minds work in the future. Researchers have experimented with using haptic signals to nudge a beginner's movement patterns into alignment with an expert.
Chapter 8: Thinking with peers
Social interaction is essential to thinking intelligently, but has often been ignored or frowned upon in traditional education.
- Research showed that how well university science students develop skills relates more to their engagement with their peers in the lab than to the guidance they get from the faculty staff.
- Students actively engaging with learning get a deeper understanding, higher exam scores and are less likely to drop out.
...the development of intelligent thinking is fundamentally a social process...we think differently—and often better—than when we think non-socially.
We can engage in some types of thinking alone, but even there some theorise that the "discussion" we hold within our own heads when thinking is a form of conversation.
The brain stores social information in a different place to other information. We can remember social information more accurately - the "social encoding advantage". Different neural and cognitive processes operate when thinking with others.
Society is mistaken in its belief that "serious thinking" has to be done in isolation.
Real-time conversation requires faster cognitive processes. Rather than just recognising words we have to anticipate what our partner will say and improvise a response.
Brain scans showed that people playing poker against humans use different parts of the brain - e.g. those involved in generating theory of mind - than when playing against a computer.
Humans are much better at thinking about people than thinking about concepts. We may have developed our large brains so we can deal with the complexity inherent in social groups.
People are much more likely to pass the Wason Selection Task if it's expressed in a social context.
Brains becomes more sensitive to social and emotional cues and rewards during adolescence. Telling adolescents to ignore that and focus on abstract information at school is sub-optimal. Instead we should leverage their social relationships. Have students teach each other.
Humans are natural teachers and learners.
It might be that the ability of other people to help us take in information is somewhat dependent on in-person interactions. Studies showed that different parts of the brain were activated when participants looked into each other's eyes vs the eyes of someone on a video recording.
Contingent communication is also important for learning; when what one partner says is directly in response to what the other said.
We also learn from teaching other people.
One theory suggests that the reason first-born children have higher IQs than their siblings is that older siblings tend to teach things to younger siblings.
Teaching is a social act involving cognitive, attentional, and motivational processes that change how the teacher thinks.
- Students who learn information for the purpose of teaching other people tend to review and organise it more thoroughly.
- The need to engage in a future interpersonal interaction, which might lead to embarrassment or admiration, is more motivating than the need to pass an exam on your own.
- Social interactions generate alertness, sharper attention and memory improvements.
- The teacher has to make details explicit that they might have glossed over in their own mind. Gaps in their knowledge become apparent.
- Mental processing is deeper when prioritising and drawing connections between parts of the subject to others.
- Answering pupil's questions engages a meta-cognitive stance, monitoring both what they and their pupil knows.
Some of these positive effects can be induced by having students record lessons on video, even when they have no audience, moreso than for instance writing out an explanation of the subject on paper for an imaginary pupil does.
Teaching other people can positively affect student's identity and self-image. Evaluations of peer-tutoring programs show that students that tutor:
- get higher grades.
- attend school more consistently.
- stay enrolled at school more often.
- learn more.
- feel more motivated.
- become more integrated into their community.
Some of these effects might come from "productive agency" - a sense that your actions affect another person positively.
"Cascading mentorship" where participants both teach and are taught may be beneficial in non-academic settings too, including the workplace. Employees who share their job-related knowledge increase their own expertise at the same time.
Social activity activates capabilities that intellectualising by ourselves does not. But it's often overlooked in the name of efficiency and convenience. Technology is spreading into education and the workplace that reinforces this suboptimal trend, such as students and employees being asked to learn alone from online resources. Instead we should consider how to use technology to promote in-person social exchanges.
Arguing is another form of social exchange that can help improve our thinking.
People perform badly when asked to think logically. Huge numbers of cognitive biases distort our attempts at rational thinking, e.g. confirmation bias. This is unsurprising as we didn't evolve to be able to solve logic puzzles on our own. But we did evolve the ability to persuade other people of our views and to avoid being misled by theirs.
Reasoning is a social activity...and should be practiced as such.
The argumentative theory of reasoning tells us that we are incentivised to examine other people's arguments in order to guard against being exploited. But we're not incentivised to examine our own arguments - in fact being completed convinced of our case likely makes us more credible to other people. Plus there's no need to analyse our own arguments in detail when we know other people will audit them for us.
"Arguing together" may therefore be a better approach than thinking alone if the aim is to arrive at the truth of a matter. When people respectfully tussle over ideas they:
- are more productive.
- are more creative.
- learn in greater depth.
- make better decisions.
Why would this be? Because when debating others we are engaged in evaluating other people's arguments rather than just creating our own. Our attention is seized by the conflict and we're motivated to learn more. The uncertainty of who's view is right compels us to learn more facts in order to resolve the ambiguity.
But today we often expect students to focus their attention on information that has no conflict, presented as the consensus view. Rather, almost every topic could and should be put in terms that highlight incompatible perspectives on it.
Arguments also generate an "accountability effect". People who know they will have to defend their views generate stronger and better-evidenced arguments compared to people who are asked to present their views alone in writing.
Cognitive load is reduced by distributing intellectual positions between several people rather than asking someone to waste mental resources carrying out a debate within their own head.
We develop the ability to both argue and evaluate other people's arguments very early in childhood. This capacity lets us clarify our thinking, correct our mistakes and make better decisions.
When arguing, we should make claims and evaluate counter-claims with the aim of finding the truth rather than winning at all costs. Have "strong opinions, weakly held".
Another way to enhance our thinking via social interactions is to tell stories and listen to other people's stories.
Students understand and recall material better if it's presented in the form of a story, particularly one that captures the human motives and choices involved in discovering a certain piece of knowledge.
But typically the texts used in schools and the workplace do the exact opposite, usually presenting de-personalised information. This doesn't leverage the "psychologically privileged" nature of stories. We naturally attend to , understand and remember the narrative of stories better than other types of material.
This might be because human brains evolved to seek causal relationships, which most stories include. Stories also usually don't spell everything out in detail, meaning listeners have to fill in certain of the causal inferences themselves. The small amount of mental effort that this requires makes stories interesting to listen to, think about and increases our ability to remember them.
Our brains also experience the action of a story as though it's happening to us.
- Brain-scanning shows that we hear of characters being emotional the emotional centers of our brain are activated. When we're told they're moving our motor regions activate.
- We remember what characters in a story are said to remember and forget what we're told they forget.
We're essentially running a simulation of the story in our minds, giving us a chance to learn from experiences that didn't happen to us and be prepared for if they do.
Professionals who exchange stories with colleagues gain experience to drawn on beyond that which they encountered themselves. Managers should provide time and space for their employees to do this. Any reduction in "efficiency" is more than made up for by the resulting benefits.
The nature of the space that stories are told in may be relevant. Informal spaces can be more conducive to people sharing useful nitty-gritty details of how things are really done - "tacit knowledge" - rather than the sanitised versions of stories that typically get told in formal meetings and training sessions. Most "knowledge management systems" approach this wrongly.
Chapter 9: Thinking with groups
"Socially distributed cognition" refers to how people think with the minds of other people. It analyses cognition at the group-of-people level. These systems can have interesting cognitive properties.
Our culture and institutions usually fixate on the individual, treating them as independent from other people. Individual competition is prioritised over team co-operation. We're resistant to conformity and worry about "groupthink".
Sometimes group thinking can lead to bad outcomes. But individual cognition is increasingly insufficient in trying to solve problems in a world where so much information is available to us, issues are very complicated, and expertise is very specialised. We need a "group mind".
The ability of humans to utilise group thinking is based on several fundamental mechanisms.
Co-ordinating our actions (e.g. physical movements) with other people - behavioural synchrony - primes us for cognitive synchrony, i.e. where multiple people can think together efficiently and effectively.
Synchrony signals to others that we are open to and capable of cooperation. We become better collaborators.
It also increases our awareness of being part of a group rather than an individual. We can interpret and predict other people's actions more easily. Our visual system becomes more sensitive to movement. We remember people that we have synchronised with more accurately, as well as learn from them and communicate with them more easily. We become better at pursuing the goals we share we them.
Emotionally, synchrony makes people feel more like friends and family. We feel warmer towards those we've experienced synchrony with, are more willing to help them or make sacrifices for them. Boundaries blur; we feel enlarged and empowered, as though we have all the resources of the group at our disposal. Group performance becomes the imperative, cooperation becomes easier.
Moving in synchrony increases endurance and reduces the perception of pain.
All cultures and eras have institutions that use synchronous movement to bond individuals together in groups - from the American Pledge of Allegiance through to Catholic church services.
As well as shared movement, shared arousal supports the emergency of the group mind. A group of soldiers marching together will have similar bodily responses to the physical exertion for instance. The synchronising of heightened emotions can also be used.
In behavioral synchrony, group members are moving their arms and legs as if they were one being; in physiological synchrony, their hearts are beating and their skin is perspiring as if they were one body.
Both behavioral and physiological synchrony promote cognitive synchrony.
When a group of people are thinking well together then their brains show similar activity - neural synchrony.
Key to these experiences is creating real-time encounters where people act and feel together in close proximity. But schools and workplaces tend to do the opposite, using technology to create "individual asynchronous, atomized experiences" such as self-driven online training modules.
Information and tasks are context dependent. We think differently when we're considering them as part of a group, particularly when it comes to our attention and motivation.
"Shared attention" happens when we focus on the same thing as other people are at the same time. This gives it special significance in our brain as being important. We "cognitively prioritise" it, use more mental bandwidth on it. This means we learn better and remember more when we attend to things with other people. We're also more likely to act upon the information we learn.
We're primed to monitor what our peers are paying attention to. This keeps our mental models of the world in sync with others.
Members of effective teams tend to synchronise their gaze, looking at the same things at the same time. This ability to coordinate can be learned with practice. The most effective collaborators cycle between looking at what everyone else is looking at and looking at something on their own.
Common ideas around motivation, such as "grit", are based on the idea that our engagement and persistence is down to us as individuals and our individual willpower. However this misses that our perseverance is enhanced when we make efforts on behalf of groups we care about.
If we feel that we belong to a group and that our identity is tied up in it and its success then group membership becomes a form of intrinsic motivation for the task. We get satisfaction from contributing towards a collective effort rather than from extrinsic factors such as money or fame.
Intrinsic motivation is more powerful, more enduring and more easily maintained than extrinsic motivation. When intrinsically motivated, work feels more enjoyable and our performance is better.
By focusing so much on individual achievement we fail to take advantage of the benefits that shared attention and motivation can bring. We'd do better by reallocating some of the time and effort we use to cultivate our individual skills to leaning how to form genuinely "groupy" teams.
To improve "groupiness", we should consider:
- People who want to think together should learn together and train together, in person, at the same time.
- Asynchronous communication reduces the efficiency and effectiveness of group work.
- Teams trained together as a group are more effective collaborators and perform better, even though group training is not the norm in many industries.
- People who want to think together should "feel together", in person at the same time. This happens on the battlefield, but simply having people honestly share their thoughts and feelings with each other improves performance.
- People should engage in rituals together, in person at the same time. Any organised activity where everyone takes part at the same time works, those that include synchronising movement or physiological arousal may be the best.
- Eating food together is particularly meaningful - sharing resources is necessary for our survival.
Note how this emphasis on our nature as "embodied, situated, social beings" differs from seemingly related ideas like crowd-sourcing that typically result in a sharing of ideas by disembodied minds.
Technology is typically used in a way that isolates us for each other, but this doesn't need to be the case. For example one tool uses body-worn sensors to help group members to attune their physical movements to be more in sync with each other.
Grouphate - “a feeling of dread that arises when facing the possibility of having to work in a group” - is real. People often dislike or see no point in group work in educational and professional settings. This is because there's usually a total mismatch between how group work practiced today and how it would work best.
People need to work together to do the highly complex work of today:
- Fewer than 10% of today's scientific journal articles have just 1 author.
- The number of people named on US patent applications has increased - more than 70% now have multiple inventors.
Whilst how knowledge is created has changed, our idea that new insights must come from individual brains usually has not.
There are ways in which group thinking differs from solo thinking which we should identify and introduce new practices to leverage. This will increase "collective intelligence".
- When we engage in solo thinking all our thoughts are heard. In a team it requires intentional effort for everyone to speak up and contribute. Often a small number of people dominate and tend to dwell on information already shared by everyone rather than their own uniquely-held information. Ideas such as getting people to write down their ideas rather than speak them and ensuring people with seniority remain quiet can help reduce this inefficiency.
- When group thinking we have to make our thought processes visible to other people. We should engage in the follow actions when responding to other people's contributions: acknowledge, repeat, rephrase, and elaborate on. Whilst it might seem unnecessary, in reality it improves people's understanding and memory of the information and reduces errors. Creating "shared artifacts" e.g. lists, graphs, charts, or sketches helps.
- When thinking on our own we have access to the entirety of our own knowledge. We cannot access the entirety of a group's knowledge. But this is good - the advantage is that we can create a group "transactive memory" such that each person only has to remember a few things directly themselves because they know who else might know what they don't. Individuals can deepen their own specialised knowledge whilst accessing other knowledge via their colleagues. Their cognitive load is reduced.
- It's easy for an individual to exclusively further their own interests when solo thinking. When group thinking, people's differing interests must be directed to a collective goal, with incentives engineered to that end. The achievements of one member should be felt to benefit everyone.
Transactive memory forms automatically, but doing so intentionally enhances it.
Groups should explicitly learn who has which sphere of knowledge and the process of how questions should be directed to then.
Individuals should have responsibility for maintaining their body of expertise.
It may be useful to appoint a "meta knowledge champion" who is responsible for keeping track of what others know and that everyone else knows who knows what.
...the value of a transactive memory system lies in its members thinking different thoughts while also remaining aware of the contents of their fellow members’ minds
Phenomena such as stereotype threat show that intelligence isn't a "fixed lump of something in our heads" but rather an interaction between our brains, bodies, spaces and relationships.
Using our knowledge of mental extensions lets us create the conditions for cognitive brilliance. Extensions work best when employed in combination within mental routines
There are 3 sets of general principles to consider.
- The habits of mind that we should adopt.
- We should offload information from our heads whenever possible. This reduces our mental burden so we can tackle more demanding tasks. It gives us a sense of detachment that might lead to new perspectives. This can mean writing down our knowledge, setting up tasks in a way conducive to offloading or the use of socially offloading to other people.
- We should transform information into an artifact whenever possible, and then interact with it, tweak it, show it to other people.
- We should proactively alter our own state when thinking. The way we think is dramatically affected by the state we're in. We might do some physical exercise before trying to learn something, engage in group synchrony before team work, or spend time in nature before calling upon our creativity.
- How mental extension works, based on an understanding how what the brain evolved to do.
- Aim to re-embody information whenever possible. This could mean making choices influenced by our interoceptive signals, enacting concepts with body movements, or attending to our own and other people's gestures.
- Aim to re-spatialise information when possible. Our brains store and process information via mental maps. Place information into spatial formats by creating memory palaces or concept maps.
- Aim to re-socialise the information we think about. The brain processes information more effectively when other people are involved. We might imitate, debate, exchange stories, teach or learn from other people.
- What kind of creatures we are.
- Manage our thinking via generating cognitive loops. Use your body to help you think, spread your thoughts out in space, run them through the brains of other people. Keep looping your thoughts through all realms. Do not keep them inside your brain.
- Create "cognitively congenial situations". Aim to create situations that draw out the desired result of your thinking rather than try and issue orders to your brain. Have students explain things to their peers, ask employees to share stories rather than read a manual.
- Embed thinking extensions in your everyday environments. Include identity cues in your workspace. Create a transactive memory system with your colleagues. There is a bias towards stability in this principle. Hot-desking makes it hard to create a productive environment, and transactive memories are difficult to establish for teams where turnover is high. But whilst society celebrates novelty and flexibility, we should respect the preservation of our mental extensions.
Everyone should be educated on how to extend their minds.
Individuals differ in how fully they've developed their capacity to extend their minds. This can be measured by a variation of an IQ test that includes the employment of mental extensions. Performance on this test reflects real-world performance better than the results of conventional brain-bound IQ tests that ignore the reality of the ways in which we think outside our brains.
What we do with our new knowledge of mental extensions is up to us. For instance it might be a useful lens for focusing on social inequality. People have defended inequality by arguing that social and economic inequality reflects an "organic inequality" whereby some people are born with more valued talents and abilities than others. But this makes little sense when we now know that our intelligence is profoundly shaped by our extended mind. If intelligence is shaped by external factors then how can we possibly justify their highly unequal distribution?
Whilst people often understand innate intelligence as being a permanent part of who we are as individuals, we are able to understand access to mental extensions more as a matter of luck or chance.
Acknowledging the reality of the extended mind might well lead us to embrace the extended heart.