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A Mind Extended

Updated: Feb 17, 2022


As I’ve said before, most of the books I read these days are read with my ears since I’m a big fan of audiobooks. What’s more, the best way to secure an audiobook is using the free Overdrive App. With a library card, books can be borrowed for free. There is no danger of late fees because the book is automatically returned on the date it is due. As well, in the event you didn’t finish the book, the app remembers where you were so when you renew it or borrow it again at a later time, the book will pick up where you left off. It’s genius!

The book that I just finished was The Extended Mind: The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain by Annie M. Paul. Paul writes:

Our culture insists that the brain is the sole locus of thinking, a cordoned-off space where cognition happens. This book argues otherwise: it holds that the mind constructs our thought processes from the resources available outside the brain. These resources include the feelings and movements of our bodies; the physical spaces in which we learn and work; and the other minds with which we interact—our classmates, colleagues, teachers, supervisors, friends…Many tomes have been written on human cognition, many theories proposed and studies conducted (Tversky’s and Kahneman’s among them). These efforts have produced countless illuminating insights, but they are limited by their assumption that thinking happens only inside the brain. Much less attention has been paid to the ways in which people use the world to think: the gestures of the hands, the space of a sketchbook, the act of listening to someone tell a story or the task of teaching someone else. These “extra-neural” inputs change the way we think; it could even be said that they constitute a part of the thinking process itself.

Even if you’ve never thought about using resources outside of your body to extend your mind, I am certain you have engaged in acts that do this. For example, most of us have some form of a to-do list going. Even if that list is just your grocery list, you take the time to write down what you intend to buy because (a) writing it down means you don’t have to use your brain to remember the items when you finally go to the store and (b) when you are at the store, you will be able to have a higher degree of confidence that you will get everything you needed. We refer to cookbooks and write down recipes so we do not need to use brain energy to recall the information. Though these examples had to do with food, there are many instances in our lives where we use resources outside of our brains in order to learn and do more than we would be capable of if we could only rely on our brains.

The Extended Mind is divided into three parts—thinking with our bodies, thinking with our surroundings, and thinking with our relationships. I have to say as an educator, I found some of Paul’s book to be validating. For example, Paul writes that through the act of teaching, teachers deepen their understanding of the knowledge they are presenting to others. Teachers everywhere already know this, right? Teaching positions the teacher as the expert. Therefore, the act of having to learn something well enough to explain it to others creates conditions whereby one is almost forced to learn more than would be required of the learner. After all, being able to do something myself does not require me to be aware of what I’m doing. Having to teach someone to do something I can do means I have to not only be able to do that thing, BUT I need to be able to explain how I do it in a manner that allows someone else to do it for themselves. Like I said, this was validating information. I was surprised to learn through the book that the simple act of recording yourself explaining something to “others” even if there is no one actually watching during the time of the recording is a powerful way to create learning for the person who is in the teacher position. I didn’t know that. This suggests acting like a teacher benefits learning even if the actual act of teaching others is not required.

I’m thinking about all of this, of course, because I finished the book, but also because I now think we don’t pay enough attention to explicitly naming and teaching ways for learners to extend their minds. For example, we of course know taking notes generally helps with learning. Paul explains Charles Darwin didn’t start journaling and cataloging his thinking and observations on his own. In fact, a captain had Darwin take notes as part of Darwin’s work on the ship. Yet, we look at Darwin’s notes and think he was naturally inclined to be a record keeper. Either way, taking notes achieves four very important functions for learning.

  1. Prioritization: First, taking notes forces the notetaker to prioritize their thinking. Without taking notes, everything can be seen as important; once you start writing (or drawing), you have to prioritize what matters since you can’t get everything. Deciding what’s worth writing (or drawing) hones in thoughts.

  2. Reduces the Cognitive Load: Taking notes reduces the cognitive load required for memory. Once the notes are put onto paper, the brain no longer has to store those thoughts in the same way. The brain simply has to remember there were notes taken and refer to the notes.

  3. Increases Reflection: Since the notes will likely be reviewed at a later time, the process of reflection can occur. In this way, the notes are both static (on the page at the time they are written [or drawn]), and they are dynamic (able to be altered when revisited).

  4. Extends the Mind: The mind is extended because the notes live outside of the brain.

Yet, when we talk to students about notetaking, we rarely explain any of the benefits or reasoning why notetaking leads to improved learning. In part, I think that’s because we don’t know since no one ever taught us the why either.

Among her oodles of examples of the extended mind, Paul also wrote about the value of movement with learning. For example, she wrote about actors who are more likely to learn their lines when the directions (movements) are introduced. What’s more, years later, actors are more likely to remember the lines that accompanied scenes with a great deal of movement. This is because there is a mind/body connection to learning. The words they learned were not in isolation—but with movements that matched. This layering of movement and words deepens learning. This is not just true for actors, but also for medical professionals and physicists. Whether it is for a medical student learning about the functions of certain body parts or a physics student learning about abstract concepts, creating physical movements allows the learners to have concrete experiences which lead to deeper and longer-lasting understandings of what they’re learning. This made me think about the work Drew Kahn at Buffalo State College does with students in the Anne Frank Project. Kahn, a theater professor, works with teachers and students from around the world to teach them how to use their bodies in the learning process. When learning about the Pythagorean Theorem, for example, Kahn would ask students to become the Pythagorean Theorem. Act it out. Embody the sides of the triangles. Show the audience (and themselves) what it means to have A2+B2=C2.

In terms of extending my mind, I know there are two go-to strategies I use. The first is to write. The second is to talk. I am a verbal processor and I grow my thinking by sharing ideas and listening to others. Another strategy I use to extend my mind is to switch my watch or ring to the opposite wrist or hand. I will do this when I know I want to remember to do something but am unable to do it at that very moment. The feeling of having the watch or ring on the wrong side is so irritating to me that I can’t wait to get the task done so I can move the watch or ring back to their usual place. I am certain there are other methods that I have not explored deeply that would be helpful to learn about. With that in mind, I’m curious about what you do to extend your mind and deepen your thinking. Do you doodle? Dance? Discuss? Do you gesture, go for a walk, or gab? I can’t wait to hear what you do and how it helps you!


P.S. This week's Catch of the Week is the Chrome Extention Print Friendly PDF. I use this when I want to print an article or page from a website but I don't want all of those annoying ads. This allows me to select what I want to be included on the page when it prints (or I can save the page as a PDF). It's great and worth checking out! The video shows how you can use without even adding the extension to your browser.

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1 Comment

Feb 17, 2022

I'm a very hands on learner and now I understand why. Great information. Not only are your Lyon's Letter always a wonderful read BUT your Catch of the Week have been excellent resources. Thank you

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