Thinking Beyond the Brain

The Extended Mind

I recently finished one of the more remarkable books I’ve read in a long time: The Extended Mind – The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain, by Annie Murphy Paul.  This is a well-researched (over 250 journal citations) yet very approachable book that goes far beyond the usual self-help advice to improve blood flow and chemicals in the brain, instead focusing on how the brain actively uses the external environment as part of the thinking and learning process.  If I had any single complaint, it’s that she does a bit too much “brain function trivia” especially in the latter sections.The Extended Mind

Paul’s overarching point is that we need to break away from the traditional neurocentric “brainbound” perspective that all thinking happens in the brain, and begin considering the brain as a “magpie” – creating tools and fashioning nests from materials found around it.  There’s considerable multi-disciplinary science around this new perspective, which is becoming actionable in tools such as Roam Research and Obsidian.

The following is a summary of what I believe are some key, actionable points.  I’d encourage you to consider these alongside the power of going to the gemba and how we teach and learn – just for starters.

Thinking With Our Bodies (Embodied Cognition)

Sensations: Part of Embodied Cognition is the highly neglected sense, not sight, sound, smell etc. but interoception, the sensing of internal bodily sensation. Performative expertise includes interoceptive expertise – recognizing more subtly and responding more rapidly to feelings inside your body as our perform your task.

Paul dives right into the use of interoceptive faculties supporting thinking – what most of us know as “gut feel.”  Turns out that this is often how the brain communicates pattern recognition faster and more effectively than with traditional thought.  She gives the example of how the best stock traders are hyper aware of changes in physical sensation, and use them to make rapid time-sensitive trades when their brain recognizes and opportune pattern. This has also been shown to reduce general bias in decision making.

People who practice the “body scan” form of meditation are especially proficient in using their interoceptive faculties.  How many of you can sense your heartbeat without touching your wrist or neck?  It turns out about 50% of us can, and we’re surprised when we learn that others (like our spouses!) can’t – and vice versa.

Movement: Humans evolved to think best while moving – while chasing prey or eluding predators.  However now most of us think while sitting at a desk.  This goes beyond just improving blood flow via exercise to actually augmenting cognitive activity.  Contrary to what most of us think, fidgeting may actually be a good thing, a method the body uses to maintain attention and improve cognitive ability while sitting still.

This concept has been put into practical use in classrooms that use standing desks, and then taken to another level by using movement to engage with concepts being taught – such as experiencing torque.  Paul also makes the point that exercising first thing in the morning, and experiencing the residual cognitive effects, is better than exercising at the end of the day and wasting that improvement.

Gestures: We think of gestures as an aid to communicating information, and they are if done effectively.  For example, simple “beat gestures” – the fairly irrelevant ones performed by presenters who have been told to “move your hands,” are just marginally effective.  The best communicators go a step further to use specific, relevant gestures to convey additional information about a concept.  Gestures appear to prime the brain’s auditory cortex for meaning so that spoken words are then better understood and remembered.

Learning and using gestures also help us think.  One example the author provided is how even non-deaf students trained on how to communicate using American Sign Language can understand and process complex concepts better than other students.  Another: we’ve all heard about the spatial thinking gap between young boys and girls – in reality this may be a non-gender “gesture gap” as hand movements are accepted and encouraged with boys while sometimes deemed not prim and proper with girls. (hooo boy, that may get controversial!)

Thinking With Our Surroundings (Situated Cognition)

Natural Spaces: Almost all of us prefer to be in nature, and find it calming and relaxing.  However there is considerable science that shows that being in nature also improves our ability to think and learn effectively.  One study Paul cited was of high school classrooms, some with windows with a view of trees and lawns, some with windows with views of buildings and parking lots, and some windowless.  The students who could gaze at nature scored higher on tests of memory, comprehension, and even attention than those who looked out at buildings or did not have windows at all.

Another important concept is that nature can induce awe, and awe changes perspectives, which can inspire creativity.  Awe prompts a predictable series of psychological responses, breaking down preconceived biases and stereotypes, making us more curious and open-minded.  Paul calls awe “a reset button for the brain.”

Built Spaces: The author cites several studies that indicate that the creation of walls and buildings was an evolutionary improvement not just to afford protection from the elements, but to also reduce cognitive burden to allow for expanded thinking.  Keeping track of everyone and everything around you exacts a high cognitive cost, and walls reduce that.  The brain evolved to be very distractible by noises, especially human speech, which explains why trying to study with the TV on – or even listening to music with singing – can be very detrimental to comprehension and retention.  Being able to personalize our immediate work environment also increases engagement and productivity, and reduces stress.

So… about those open offices, especially the ones where you don’t have an assigned workspace…!

Space of Ideas: Being able to interact physically greatly enhances understanding and problem-solving.  Watson and Crick identified the double helix structure of DNA by using physical models.  “Thinking with your brain alone – like a computer does – is not equivalent to thinking with your brain, your eyes, and your hands.”  One of my favorite quotes is Issac Asimov’s “Writing, to me, is simply thinking through my fingers.”  Generating physical visualizations and writing by hand is more effective that computer simulations and data on a screen.

We’ve discussed lean versions of this concept before from many different angles.  When doing value stream maps, it’s better to create them manually using sticky notes or drawing on paper.  Recording data and updating status by hand on metrics boards creates more understanding than simply looking at data on a computer screen.  Going to the physical gemba is far more effective than discussing a problem in a remote conference room.  Scribbling notes in a journal stimulates more effective reflection than typing into an iPad.  Taking handwritten notes in a classroom is more effective that typing notes onto a course PowerPoint on a computer.

Thinking With Our Relationships (Distributed Cognition)

Experts: Humans are born with a predisposition to imitate experts – beginning with our parents and eventually moving to professional experts.  Imitation is an effective way to learn, and we see this with the steps in TWI Job Instruction.  Humans, as opposed to most other animals, are also “high fidelity imitators” – our young imitate very precisely while other species are more approximate.  This is a major evolutionary advantage, and is being used at the university level in various subjects.  One example is in law school, where sample in-depth writings – memoranda, decisions, case analyses, etc. – are given to new students.  The students are provided guides and questions to go through the documents, and are then expected to emulate the style and depth on course projects.

There’s also an interesting application of this concept to the development of process instructions and standard work.  A study of expert surgeons and programmers found that they omitted nearly 70% of the steps when they were asked to document their processes.  One solution?  Asking them to think like a beginner.  Other solutions will be familiar to us in the lean and kata world: break down the process into steps, then break it down again into micro steps.  At each step, focus just on the next step in the process.

Peers: Although we like to claim a commitment to individualism, humans learn as groups.  Knowledge has historically been conveyed via stories, passed down from generation to generation.  Today knowledge is stored and communicated outside of the brain, but the power of stories remain.  When stories, especially if they convey the “why” of a concept (again – TWI JI), comprehension and retention increase.  Along those same lines of conveying knowledge, one of the best ways to learn is to also teach.  This, along with the desire for cheap labor, is one reason why graduate students are often teachers of lower level classes in they subject areas.

Two of the most important allowances leaders can make to help increase storytelling are time and space.  Having defined downtime and informal group activities are time well spent.  Once study showed that a 1 percent reduction in efficiency from defined downtime for unstructured employee interaction produces a threefold increase in group performance.

Groups: Physical movement with a group creates improved collaboration and creativity.  This “synchrony” is a reason why the Japanese practice of common morning exercises by school children up through executives of major corporation creates more than just basic physical fitness.  Note that it is also first thing in the morning, and as Paul mentioned in the Movement section, this creates a cognitive improvement that lasts several hours and is wasted if it happens in the evening.  Synchronized exercises in Japan is the most widespread example, but the same concept applies when a classroom stands and says the Pledge of Allegiance, a church congregation kneels, a band marches, or even dining in groups.  The intimacy created by simple employee group lunches spills back over into work activities.

Perhaps this synchrony is another reason why brief daily standup meetings are so effective?  In addition to creating coordination and sharing knowledge, they also augment thinking effectiveness?  Innovative educators are creating “jigsaw classrooms” where individual students learn a specific subset of a topic, then rejoin a small group and must teach their new knowledge to that group (with the others doing the same with their subtopics), then that small group teaches and reports to the entire classroom to complete the puzzle of a larger topic.  The long term study showed that students learned all of the material faster, retained it longer, and could use it for future problem-solving.

Quite a bit to think about and digest.  I was struck by how much was specifically relevant to the lean world where we focus on process, continuous improvement, and the power of people.


  1. Jon Miller

    November 13, 2021 - 10:59 am

    Very interesting and relatable. Taking a walk often helps one get past a mental block. Sometimes the shape of a leaf on a tree jogs a specific, elusive memory.

  2. Marty Lyons

    November 22, 2021 - 8:50 am

    This helps explain why some people pace while talking on the phone, others need to get out of the office to think, why we sometimes have breakthrough thoughts while in the shower, etc. Studying the brain is like studying electricity; you can’t see it working, but it’s working nonetheless.

  3. Pete Meyers

    November 22, 2021 - 10:48 am

    Fantastic summary. Ordering the book now. Makes me curious about how this all plays out among so-called knowledge workers, especially those of us who work collaboratively. Thanks Kevin!

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