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My pillow must be smart, because when I sleep, all the details I want to remember for the next day seem to empty out my ears. As we suspected, the capacity of our human brains to store information is limited. We really can’t remember EVERYTHING…at least we can’t hold everything in our conscious minds. But our conscious minds aren’t the only storage available to us besides electronic media that aren’t always helpful for the task at hand. THE EXTENDED MIND: THE POWER OF THINKING OUTSIDE THE BRAIN by science writer Annie Murphy Paul presents research-based biological and social alternatives we may underutilize.
We already know our subconscious mind holds our memories—including emotions and imagination. We may not realize this filing cabinet frees up space for our conscious mind to attend to daily tasks. Actually, we store information throughout our bodies—information about ourselves, other people, and about our world. Remember “gut feelings?” We talk about heart ache, but often underestimate the information our hearts process for us—more quickly than our brains can assess masses of subtle cues we don’t realize we’re receiving. If we’re sensitive to the information/signals we get from our bodies, we’re tapping into the vast non-conscious “brain” we maintain outside our heads. In fact, the body is often more rational about topics such as finance or relationships than conscious thought, if we know how to interpret our signals. Paul provides examples and exercises for fine tuning body smarts.
People who are talented at empathy unconsciously mimic the visual cues the other person is displaying and, by copying those cues, they perceive what the other person is feeling by feeling it themselves. Of course, this is a major advantage in personal and business relationships. But our bodies can do more than simply perceive information, they can help us be smarter. For as long as two hours after exercise, we think better because we’ve accessed more sources than our brains. We think more efficiently when we move—gesturing, walking, even standing. Runners may seek to empty their minds to allow creativity to enter. Or we can design movement to cement complicated memories in place, as memory experts do, allowing our bodies to preserve that information for our minds. Scientists may imagine themselves or representations such as drawings or constructions as the elements they’re trying to comprehend—a technique used by Einstein who said no one thinks in equations.
Our brains are also impacted by our surroundings. Our thinking evolved to thrive in nature, allowing us to use the outdoors to combat depression, expand our working memory, or relieve symptoms of attention deficit. We need the sunlight and window views we once eliminated as being distracting to replenish creative thought. We unwittingly depend on the fractals in nature to help us think more clearly. We’re better able to delay immediate gratification when we spend time in nature, the big picture. The awe we can experience outdoors makes us more curious and open-minded. We become more altruistic. Therefore, we need to consider the outcomes we desire when we build spaces where we want people to work, interact, and be productive. What kinds of distractions or limiting factors do we accidentally include? What harm do we do when we eliminate personality in work spaces?
Finally, we evolved to work in community. We use the expertise of others to expand our own knowing. Even with peers, we think differently and often better when we think socially. Arguments based on a mutual desire to reach the best possible answer improve learning. We learn vicariously from the experiences of others, using others as extensions of our own brains. The compilation of techniques, stories, and research that can be found in THE EXTENDED MIND is a golden resource for any forward-thinking, creative teacher/professor, scientist, writer, or business executive who is willing to experiment with fresh concepts to achieve optimal brain power. I wish this book had been available to enhance my mind a long time ago.