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  • Dan Connors

Think outside your brain- how to recapture 99% of your mental potential.

The Extended Mind: The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain Annie Murphy Paul 2021

There is a commonly held belief that humans only use about 10% of their brains. There is no scientific basis to this belief and most studies show that most of our brain is in use one way or another whether we are waking or sleeping. The problem is that as children we are constantly learning and expanding the neuron connections in our brain, but as adults we fall into predictable patterns and the neurons become hard-wired, making learning and growth much, much harder. And for those unlucky enough to have difficult childhoods, that hard-wiring can be a heavy burden that affects lifelong learning.

This book, The Extended Mind, shows that many of us use less than 1% of our brain's potential, given that we now have the ability to expand its reach beyond the skull and body. Annie Murphy Paul is a science writer and author of three books. Her research in this book covers “extra-neural” resources—the feelings and movements of our bodies, the physical spaces in which we learn and work, and the minds of those around us—can help us focus more intently, comprehend more deeply, and create more imaginatively.

What? You can use external resources to enrich and empower your brain? Yes, that three pounds of mostly water between our ears has evolved quickly over the last few centuries to expand its powers and reach way beyond the human body. This concept is revolutionary in a time when we still understand so little about how the mind works. The author points to nine major ways we can expand our brain beyond basic cognitive thinking, and they are fascinating.

1- Interoception is the ability to read signals from the body itself to guide conscious decisions. If your heart starts racing in a particular situation, your body is telling you to be careful and watch for danger. This is the knowledge that's buried deep down in our subconscious- gut feelings that tell us things our conscious mind can't process. Sometimes these messages are wrong, but the more in tune we are with our body, the more accurately we can read them. The author recommends mindfulness meditation and a "body scan" to uncover hidden data that's below our conscious comprehension.

2- Movement of our bodies greatly heightens our senses and increases our brain's abilities. Embodied cognition is the way some people learn by doing. Kinesthetic learning works better than visual or auditory learning for many people because as the body moves, it triggers links in the memory that helps the knowledge stick more than if a sedentary person experiences the same information. Novel movements and experiences increase learning even more. There have been numerous studies that show when children are allowed to move about during the day, they learn better than seated quietly at desks. Also, when movement itself is incorporated into a lesson, it becomes much more likely to be retained. Actors use movement to recall their lines in a play or production. This goes against many beliefs that our brains work best when our bodies are still and paying attention.

3- Gestures and body language can be very persuasive to the human brain. Babies depend entirely on gestures to understand their world, and that ability never goes away. Studies have shown that in educational talks and videos that use prolific hand gestures, students recall the information substantially better. Using the hands to express size, shape, or movement helps the brain to create helpful mental images rather than trying to process abstract words. There is a famous rule, the 7-38-55 rule that states that human communication is 55% non-verbal, 38% vocal, and only 7% the actual words that are spoken. Being the logical creatures that we are, we assume that the content itself is the most important, when the way it's delivered matters much more.

4- Natural Spaces have a profound effect on the brain. Everybody who has ever experienced a day in the park, on a lake, or by the beach can attest to the healing and restorative powers of natural spaces. Civilization, data, and constant information flow can be very draining and taxing to the working memory of the brain. Because nature is more predictable, it allows passive attention most of the time, which is less demanding and more restorative. There is a term called biophilic design that looks at how incorporating natural images and items into human architecture and living or work spaces can greatly improve thinking, mood, and general happiness.

5- Built spaces can make a huge difference for the productivity of the brain. The author recommends walls over open floor plans, because shutting out distractions is what protects the brain and its thinking power the most. Noise, clutter, and interruptions are the enemy of deep thought today, and the more a person can control their work and living environment, the better their brain will perform.

In the push towards efficiency, some workplaces have tried to remove individuality and control, thinking that personal distractions like photos of family on the desk are unnecessary. On the contrary, personal items in the workspace increases confidence and gives the person more ownership, raising productivity and job satisfaction. For our brain to work best, it needs to feel safe and at home in its immediate environment.

6- The space of ideas is a way to bring partially formed ideas out into the open and work on them as they evolve. This was my favorite part of the book. Think of a 3-D model of a building- architects wouldn't think of starting a building without a physical model so that they can see the finished product and improve upon it before construction begins. The same goes for creative artists and storyboards, where an entire book or movie can be laid out on a large wall to see how it flows and visualized as it goes through its process. We all have mental map of how we'd like things to turn out, but using the physical space around us to play with our ideas could be the most powerful tool at our disposal. Even just drawing sketches or playing with words or numbers on a piece of paper gives the brain something external to latch onto while it tries to create something new.

7- Expert knowledge uses the brains of others who have already encountered a problem and following their lead to save time and effort. Relying on experts- either online resources or respected human beings, helps our brain to take huge shortcuts towards solutions that could otherwise take years. Of course experts can be wrong, or there might not be much expertise in new or emerging problems, but on balance using the prior works of an expert not only avoids costly mistakes, it acts as a powerful motivating force knowing that someone else faced a similar problem and found a solution.

8- Peers can be critical in the learning process. Many types of learning are social, and can only be found through people teaching each other. One of the best ways to learn something deeply is to teach it to somebody else. Another way to experience deep learning is through stories, which generic textbooks try to avoid. Stories told by a peer who has experiences that we don't can be very powerful. Teens and young people are especially wired to learn from their peers, making it even more important for them to find strong, supportive, and intelligent peer groups.

9- Groups and groupthink offer yet another way to supplement the brain. By specializing and distributing information,members of a group can accomplish much more than they could on their own. Humans are social animals, and our ability to synchronize and collaborate with others multiplies our knowledge base exponentially. Groups can also be very damaging when they stifle individual creativity or demonize those not in the group, but most of our basic institutions- government, business, education, science, and the arts relies on organized groups to build from the past and plan for the future.

This book invites the reader to think differently about the brain and its powers. The temptation in our individualistic society is to see the brain as a static, finite organ, reflective of its owner and his or her character. Those who succeed in life must have good brains, while those who fail have defective ones. But it's much more complicated than that. Our brains are dependent on so much more than the limited inputs and processing capability that each of us has at birth.

We depend on our environment, our peers and leaders, and our general health to be able to fully utilize the full reach of our brain's potential. In addition to the nine factors above, I would add quality education and parenting, mental health, good wi-fi, libraries, access to affordable healthcare, and freedom from fear of crime or poverty as factors that influence our ability to think clearly and creatively. Our lives are an unfathomably complex mixture of inputs from everywhere, and we depend on our brains to make sense of it all.

Tools from this book like controlling your environment, offloading content into notepads and models, and reaching out to others are all ways that we can help our brain make the most sense of this confusing and rapidly changing world. Protect your brain by extending it and sharing its ideas with others.

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