Opinion | How to Think Outside Your Brain

The body is also uniquely capable of grounding abstract concepts in the concrete terms that the brain understands best. Abstract concepts are the order of the day in physics class; conventional modes of instruction, like lectures and textbooks, often fail to convey them effectively. Some studies in the field of physics education found that students’ understanding of the subject is less accurate after an introductory college physics course. What makes a difference is offering students a bodily experience of the topic they’re learning about. They might encounter torque, for example, by holding an axle on which two bicycle wheels have been mounted. When the wheels are spun and the axle is tilted from horizontal to vertical, the student handling it feels the resistive force that causes objects to rotate. Such exposures produce a deeper level of comprehension, psychological research has found, leading to higher test scores, especially on more challenging theoretical questions.

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Another extraneural resource available for our use is physical space. Moving mental contents out of our heads and onto the space of a sketch pad or whiteboard allows us to inspect it with our senses, a cognitive bonus that the psychologist Daniel Reisberg calls “the detachment gain.” That gain was evident in a study published in 2016, in which experimenters asked seventh- and eighth-grade students to illustrate with drawings the operation of a mechanical system (a bicycle pump) and a chemical system (the bonding of atoms to form molecules). Without any further instruction, these students sketched their way to a more accurate understanding of the systems they drew. Turning a mental representation into shapes and lines on a page helped them to elucidate more fully what they already knew while revealing with ruthless rigor what they did not yet comprehend.

Three-dimensional space offers additional opportunities for offloading mental work and enhancing the brain’s powers. When we turn a problem to be solved into a physical object that we can interact with, we activate the robust spatial abilities that allow us to navigate through real-world landscapes. This suite of human strengths, honed over eons of evolution, is wasted when we sit still and think. A series of studies conducted by Frédéric Vallée-Tourangeau, a professor of psychology at Kingston University in Britain, Gaëlle Vallée-Tourangeau, a professor of behavioral science at Kingston, and their colleagues, has explored the benefits of such interactivity. In these studies, experimenters pose a problem; one group of problem solvers is permitted to interact physically with the properties of the problem, while a second group must only think through the problem. Interactivity “inevitably benefits performance,” they report.

This holds true for a wide variety of problem types — including basic arithmetic, complex reasoning, planning and those that require creative insight. People who are permitted to manipulate concrete tokens representing elements of the problem to be solved bear less cognitive load and enjoy increased working memory. They learn more and are better able to transfer their learning to new situations. They are less likely to engage in symbol pushing, or moving numbers and words around in the absence of understanding. They are more motivated and engaged and experience less anxiety. They even arrive at correct answers more quickly. (As the title of a research paper that the Vallée-Tourangeaus wrote with Lisa G. Guthrie puts it, “Moves in the World Are Faster Than Moves in the Head.”)

One last resource for augmenting our minds can be found in other people’s minds. We are fundamentally social creatures, oriented toward thinking with others. Problems arise when we do our thinking alone — for example, the well-documented phenomenon of confirmation bias, which leads us to preferentially attend to information that supports the beliefs we already hold. According to the argumentative theory of reasoning, advanced by the cognitive scientists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber, this bias is accentuated when we reason in solitude. Humans’ evolved faculty for reasoning is not aimed at arriving at objective truth, Mercier and Sperber point out; it is aimed at defending our arguments and scrutinizing others’. It makes sense, they write, “for a cognitive mechanism aimed at justifying oneself and convincing others to be biased and lazy. The failures of the solitary reasoner follow from the use of reason in an ‘abnormal’ context” — that is, a nonsocial one. Vigorous debates, engaged with an open mind, are the solution. “When people who disagree but have a common interest in finding the truth or the solution to a problem exchange arguments with each other, the best idea tends to win,” they write, citing evidence from studies of students, forecasters and jury members.

The minds of other people can also supplement our limited individual memory. Daniel Wegner, a psychologist at Harvard, named this collective remembering “transactive memory.” As he explained it, “Nobody remembers everything. Instead, each of us in a couple or group remembers some things personally — and then can remember much more by knowing who else might know what we don’t.” A transactive memory system can effectively multiply the amount of information to which an individual has access. Organizational research has found that groups that build a strong transactive memory structure — in which all members of the team have a clear and accurate sense of what their teammates know — perform better than groups for which that structure is less defined. Linda Argote, a professor of organizational behavior and theory at Carnegie Mellon University, reported last year that results from an observational study showed that when a trauma resuscitation team developed a robust shared memory system and used it to direct tasks to the team members most qualified to take them on, their patients had shorter hospital stays.

All four of these extraneural resources — technology, the body, physical space, social interaction — can be understood as mental extensions that allow the brain to accomplish far more than it could on its own. This is the theory of the extended mind, introduced more than two decades ago by the philosophers Andy Clark and David Chalmers. A 1998 article of theirs published in the journal Analysis began by posing a question that would seem to have an obvious answer: “Where does the mind stop and the rest of the world begin?” They went on to offer an unconventional response. The mind does not stop at the usual “boundaries of skin and skull,” they maintained. Rather, the mind extends into the world and augments the capacities of the biological brain with outside-the-brain resources.


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