“You are not the king of your brain. You are the creepy guy standing next to the king going "a most judicious choice, sire"”- Steven Kaas
“I used to think that the brain was the most wonderful organ in my body. Then I realized who was telling me this.” - Emo Phillips
Why is this interesting? A kind reader flagged a recent podcast with Annie Murphy Paul and Ezra Klein on her new book The Extended Mind, The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain (thanks Jen, you get me). The book presents the compelling idea that our brains are more limited than our modern culture perceives, and that there are other forms of cognitive enhancement we can therefore access and exploit. It’s always seemed like an important thing to learn more about.
Essentially she believes we need to learn to utilize the evolutionary assistance provided by our bodies, environment and peers.
I also conclude with what I personally believe to be the most practical approach to augmenting non-intellectual intelligence.
1. Crux of the book- three sources of “external cognition”:
TM: We have become the most powerful species on the planet in large part because of our ability to understand and communicate abstract information.
But as Murphy Paul insightfully says; “now, paradoxically, further progress may depend on running this process in reverse. In order to succeed at the increasingly complex thinking modern life demands, we will find ourselves needing to translate abstractions back into the corporeal, spatial, and social forms from which they sprang—forms with which the brain is still most at ease.”
She distinguishes between three broad categories of cognition:
- "First, there is the study of embodied cognition, which explores the role of the body in our thinking: for example, how making hand gestures increases the fluency of our speech and deepens our understanding of abstract concepts.
- Second, there is the study of situated cognition, which examines the influence of place on our thinking: for instance, how environmental cues that convey a sense of belonging, or a sense of personal control, enhance our performance in that space. [Open-plan comes out poorly, work from home well]
- Third, there is the study of distributed cognition, which probes the effects of thinking with others—such as how people working in groups can coordinate their individual areas of expertise (a process called “transactive memory”), and how groups can work together to produce results that exceed their members’ individual contributions (a phenomenon known as “collective intelligence”). [Oddly, this is my topic for next week]."
My interpretation is that Murphy Paul believes we’re frequently thinking about cognition wrong. I enjoyed her tacit criticism of “grit” and “growth mindsets.” They’ve always felt oversimplified to me. Yes, diligence and persistence is obviously great. But true creativity and insight often requires slack, relaxation and non-intellectual effort. If we’re already bumping up against the limits of our neurobiology, straining harder won’t produce corresponding gains. The brain is not a muscle or a computer.
One obvious example is move more to think better. Forcing yourself to sit still can be cognitively demanding. Kids diagnosed with ADHD fidget so they can concentrate better. Moderate intensity exercise for a moderate time is the sweet spot for improving cognition, especially as a break during the day. Very intense exercise can induce transient hypofrontality- essentially when our conscious mind becomes so involved in the exertion that we become more open to unconscious insight.
2. Boundaries are key- building a better bridge.
The constant reliance on studies to prove a point rather than illustrate them is a persistent pitfall in modern non-fiction. If the study fails to replicate, your foundations collapse. That said, Murphy Paul’s book does have some interesting ideas to pursue, even for a relative skeptic like me.
As Murphy Paul writes, the key to extending cognition is “translating abstractions back into the corporeal”. This meshes perfectly with the striking evidence that creativity and insight occurs at boundaries- in this case between “brain” and “world”. Some examples from the book:
- Gestures bridge the gap between physical and mental. People who gesture more explain better and understand faster. Gesture can actually precede understanding. Think about how you gesticulate when you’re trying to find the right words.
TM: Compare that to this description of Richard Feynman teaching via James Gleick: “Intuition was not just visual but also auditory and kinesthetic. Those who watched Feynman in moments of intense concentration came away with a strong, even disturbing, sense of the physicality of the process, as this his brain did not stop with the gray matter, but extended through every muscle in his body.”
- Being in nature helps our attention and cognition because nature is fractal- itself a boundary. “It seems that our brains are optimized to process the fractal characteristics of natural scenes; hundreds of thousands of years of evolution have “tuned” our perceptual faculties to the way visual information is structured in natural environments. We may not take conscious note of fractal patterns, but at a level deeper than awareness, these patterns reverberate.” And middle-complexity fractals are most compelling.
TM: As an aside, I was recently fascinated by an article in Nautilus on curiosity. We seem to navigate our information landscape at a boundary between familiar and novel. “Curiosity peaked when subjects had a good guess about the answer but weren’t quite sure. The sweet spot for curiosity seemed to be a Goldilocksian level of information—not too much nor too little.” We don’t start out our learning at deep astrophysics- a new idea or invention has to be “Most Advanced Yet Acceptable.” When the student is ready, the master appears.
- Externalizing internal information- pull the abstract back into the world. Notes, checklists etc are obvious (Siri reminders have saved my marriage). An extreme example is “memory palaces” that can apparently as much as double our memory capacity. Essentially placing abstract things you need to remember on familiar external environments. Daniel Tammet recited 22,514 digits of Pi and described it like mentally walking through a garden. When recalling an insight from a podcast think how often it gets associated with where you were when you first heard it. This works on models too: Watson attributed his breakthrough in discovering the double helix structure of DNA by making a 3D model he could manipulate with his hands. Einstein famously said he thought in images, not words.
These processes, and a great many others from the book, all seem to be about building the strongest possible bridge between inner and outer experience. This aligns with what I believe to be the universal principle of closing the gap between map and territory.
Murphy Paul sums it all up nicely:
“We can pass our thoughts through the portal of our bodies: seeking the verdict of our interoception, seeing what our gestures have to show us, acting out our ideas in movement, observing the inspirations that arise during or after vigorous exercise. We can spread out our thoughts in space, treating the contents of the mind as a territory to be mapped and navigated, surveyed and explored. And we can run our thoughts through the brains of the people we know, gathering from the lot of them the insights no single mind could generate. Most felicitous of all, we can loop our thoughts through all three of these realms. What we shouldn’t do is keep our thoughts inside our heads, inert, unchanged by encounters with the world beyond the skull.”
3. My conclusion: what can we say or do that is of practical benefit in our own lives?
Clues as to how we can build the best cognitive bridges are found in the question of how a genius knows when they’re wrong. An extremely consistent answer is a sense of dissonance, very often physically-felt. One of Wall Street’s most famous clichés is George Soros’ back pain indicating when he was poorly positioned.
I have read a substantial number of books and articles on intuition, body sensing, and neurology. I even spent a year getting a certificate in Existential Humanistic Therapy, which emphasizes the value of accessing momentary sensory experience.
A few days before reading Murphy Paul’s book, I coincidentally met with Dr. Sahib Khalsa, an expert in interoception (perception of bodily sensations). The problem is this: I desperately want to believe in gut brains, heart brains and bodily intelligence. It confirms all my priors in terms of the striking limitations of intellectual intelligence, and the corresponding benefits of non-traditional “irrational” approaches. It’s just that… the science is still very much in its infancy, and there is so little we can say with any real certainty. It’s even harder to find actual tools or practical implementations. Dr. Khalsa has found that even meditation, today’s solution for absolutely everything, hasn’t been definitively proven to be a great aid to interoception. (And intense meditation itself comes with significant risks that seem to be extremely under-discussed).
You will be absolutely gobsmacked to learn that I think it’s all about boundaries. For me personally, the most creatively fertile moments are between sleep and wakefulness in the morning.
One way of understanding the boundary space between intellectual and physical, that Murphy Paul thinks is so important, is to consider how we put the right abstract words onto corporeal felt-senses. To oversimplify the metaphor, and probably annoy neurologists, reality comes to us via the right hemisphere and is interpreted by the left. The right is more symbolic and emotional, and less verbal. The left is “rational” thought, the right is “irrational or intuitive.” Hence the sense of dissonance when the two disagree.
Philosopher-psychologist Eugene Gendlin observed hundreds of therapy sessions and claimed to be able identify a key determinant of whether a patient would eventually recover. He believed it was how they processed their experience internally and the quality with which they could express it. Murphy Paul cites work by UCLA scientists that found significant benefits from using a larger number of terms for feelings and being as granular as possible in describing them.
Psychologist James Pennebaker has conducted years of fascinating research into expressive writing. He found that people who wrote about their traumas, particularly if they were previously a secret, experienced significant increases in physical health.
Putting appropriate words on emotions appears to be a very powerful technology. Indeed, the great mythologist Joseph Campbell argued it was the very purpose of story and myth itself. If a tool has endured for hundreds of thousands of years it surely contains something of value. I don’t need a study to tell me that.
The benefits of consistent journaling are stark within this context. My vastly more accomplished wife has just finished writing her first book, The Sleep Fix. One of her key, practical findings was the benefit of “constructive worry.” The idea is to think of a problem that is causing you anxiety at bedtime, then write down the next step you might take to address it. A boundary practice, journaling, at a boundary period of waking and sleep. It also literally externalizes your thoughts.
Robert Johnson’s book Balancing Heaven and Earth (another remarkable reader recommendation, thank you Pip!), discusses the synthesis of Eastern and Western thought and inner and outer worlds. It’s perhaps the most important boundary-balance to attempt. One passage has really stuck with me.
“Sanskrit-based languages have ninety-six words for love. This allows a precision for feeling unknown in a Western language, for there is a word for love of your mother, a different one for your father, your horse, the sunset, your buddy, or the delight of a fine poem. I wish I had an English vocabulary of ninety-six words to discuss love, but I do not. In India the broad vocabulary for different types of relatedness allows people to show affection freely without setting off concerns and fears about what it might mean.”
The limits of language truly are the limits of your experience. As a result, the more effectively the emotional can be made verbal, the more efficiently we will process the world. It’s very much not about making us aware of all our bodily sensations at all times; our sensory filters are narrow for a very good reason.
Perhaps the correct takeaway from the Soros anecdote isn’t that he was blindly guided by mystical bodily signals, but that he had enough ingrained experience to interpret what it meant when he felt a back spasm. Pattern recognition is often laid-down in our unconscious mind, and we’re constantly running new situations against our reservoir of prior experience in the background. Hence when a relevant pattern in the outside world is identified unconsciously, it’s delivered to conscious awareness via a sensation. Hence you need to have laid down the foundation of knowledge in order to generate the pattern model. Then you need to be able to speak the language of sensation by having put the right words on it previously. Hence you achieve a balance of two-way communication. You might also achieve a richer experiential appreciation of the world itself.
I know that was a lot of information, but I think this is a really important topic.
Love to hear your thoughts,