the ability to think outside the mind
by Annie Murphy Paul
In this year’s Oscar-winning documentary “My Octopus Teacher,” filmmaker and narrator Craig Foster tells us that two-thirds of the sensation of his new octopus friend is in his arms. It’s a surprising revelation, especially when we soon see a pajama shark swimming with one of its jaws still waving tentacles. but no problem! The octopus still has its central brain, not to mention the seven other arms at its disposal, and in a metaphorical sense, so are we humans.
This is the theme of Annie Murphy Paul’s new book, “The Extended Mind,” which encourages us to use our whole bodies, our surroundings, and our relationships to “think outside the brain.”
First, though, we have to stop thinking of the three-pound lump inside our skull as the only cognitive show in town. We are not actors alone, stranded alone in the universe – forced to rely only on our minds to think, remember and solve problems – even though the pandemic has made us feel that way. Instead, we are networked creatures that move around in changing environments, environments that have the power to change our thinking, writes Paul.
We are constantly getting messages about what is happening inside our bodies, sensations that we can either see or ignore. And we are among the tribes who guide us. Still, we “emphasize that the brain is the only place of thinking, an enclosed space where cognition takes place, much as my laptop’s functioning is sealed inside its aluminum case,” writes Paul. Huh. Paul’s view is that we are less like data processing machines and more like soft-bodied molluscs, picking up signals from within and outside and transforming ourselves accordingly.
To be clear, the octopus metaphor is mine, not the author’s. But the way these creatures camouflage themselves in a kelp forest and distribute their intelligence among many organs, leads me to think of Paul’s main question, a 1995 essay by philosophers Andy Clark and David Chalmers. Inspired by: “Where does the mind stop and the rest of the world begin?”
This is not a new problem for the author, a New Haven-based science writer. In 2011, he published “Origins,” which focused on all the ways in which the environment was shaped by the environment before and after birth, from minute to minute. Jerome Grupman summarized his thesis for this paper in his review of the book: “In the nature-nurture dynamic, nutrition begins at conception. The food the mother eats, the air she breathes, which The stress or trauma she experiences—all of which could affect her child for decades to come, for better or worse.”
It could be a recipe for nonstop worry for nine months of pregnancy, or it could just be a down-to-earth take on the science of epigenetics – how environmental cues become catalysts for gene expression. Anyhow, the parallel to this latest book is that the boundaries we usually think of as fixed are actually squishy. The moment a child is born, his IQ score or an fMRI snapshot of what is going on inside his brain – all are encroached upon and influenced by outside forces.
In the first volume of the new book, “Thinking with Our Bodies,” Paul argues that our awareness of internal cues, such as exactly when our heart beats, or how cold and clammy our hands are, is at the poker table. Can enhance our performance in the financial markets, and even improve our pillow talk. Wouldn’t it be easy to know what moment your heart starts to get bumpy? The awareness of that SOS from body to brain is called interoception, and apparently some of us are better interceptors than others. “While we usually think of the brain as what the body is supposed to do, the body guides the brain with an array of subtle nudges and prods. One psychologist has called this guide our ‘somatic rudder. ,” writes Paul—a phrase so provocative I underlined it twice.
Although the body’s plumbing and electrical functioning usually fly under our radar, Paul is on target by pointing out that techniques that help us pinpoint their signals can promote well-being and even improve health. that some cortical characteristics may also change. The “body scan” aspect of mindfulness meditation, which has been positioned by behavioral medicine pioneer Jon Kabat-Zinn, can help people lower their heart rate and blood pressure, for example, while German neuroscientist Tania Singer have shown how the neural circuitry embedded in compassion is strengthened by meditation practice.
Paul writes precisely and clearly. But she leaves evidence that could add more nuance. One example: the lie detector test, known as the polygraph, assumes that the way we think with our bodies, guided by our somatic rudders, the truth will come out. Spikes in heart rate and blood pressure are interpreted as a sign of deception, which is why polygraphs appear so often in police procedures, awkward courtrooms, and even job checks. One problem: Most psychologists think the polygraph is bunk. Paul may have explained why physical signs are so unreliable in these contexts, yet instructive – even therapeutic – in others.
Similarly, in a chapter about embodied cognition, which explains the effects of gestures on thinking, feeling, and memory, Paul writes that our thoughts are “powerfully shaped by the way we move our bodies.” Huh.” Gestures help us understand spatial concepts; In fact, “without the help of gestures, students may fail to understand spatial ideas at all,” Paul insists. They enhance our memory, verbal fluency and ability to grasp new ideas. Several studies have been cited. Yet two well-known attempts at embodied cognition – one study showing that a pencil held between the teeth contracted the muscles typically associated with smiling, thus making subjects feel happy, and the other at “power posing”, Showing that a winning posture boosts self-confidence and even turns our hormone levels up- don’t make a cameo here. Why not? My guess is because Paul knows they largely failed to replicate, meaning that other researchers who repeated their experiments didn’t get the same results. The ensuing controversies filled the pages of popular magazines. By sidelining these studies, Paul leaves the reader to think about the solidity of the evidence he presents.
These are hesitations. The chapters on the ways natural and built spaces reflect universal preferences and heighten the thinking process felt like a relief. “More than half of Earth’s humans now live in cities, and by 2050 this figure is predicted to rise to about 70 percent,” Paul writes, noting nonetheless that loose clumps of trees and near water sources Seeing the expanse of grass helps us solve it. problem. “Passive meditation,” she writes, “spontaneous: diffuse and focused, it floats from object to object, subject to subject. It is attention attracted by nature, with its murmuring sound and fluid motion.” James Psychologists working in the tradition of this state of mind call ‘soft attachment’.”
The city dweller I am was happy to read these passages, and they sounded right to me, as did Paul’s discussion of “socially distributed cognition”—how people think through the minds of others. If emulating experts and working synchronously can ease some of the cognitive burden and ease my over-stretched mind, then I’m a convert.