Episode 74 of The Informed Life podcast features a conversation with acclaimed science writer Annie Murphy Paul. Annie’s work has appeared in the New York Times, the Boston Globe, Scientific American, Slate, Time magazine, The Best American Science Writing, and other publications. She’s the author of three books, including her latest, The Extended Mind1, which is the subject of our conversation.
The Extended Mind is the clearest introduction I’ve read to a field that is consequential to designers: the study of how human cognition works. In particular, the book focuses on research about embodied cognition: the idea that cognition doesn’t just happen in the brain but also relies on our bodies, other people, and the material world.
I loved this book and was thrilled to ask Annie about how this line of thinking plays out in the context of our heavily digitized lives. In particular, I was curious about how the “brain-bound” way of thinking about thinking has affected the design of the world we think in. As Annie put it,
our misunderstanding of what the brain is leads us… to create these structures in society — in education and in the workplace, in our everyday lives — that really don’t suit the reality of what the brain is.
I mean, I’m thinking about how, for example, we expect ourselves to be productive. Whether that’s in the workplace, or what we expect our students to do in school. You know, we often expect ourselves to sit still, don’t move around, don’t change the space where you’re in. Don’t talk to other people. Just sit there and kind of work until it’s done. And that’s how we expect ourselves to get serious thinking done. And that makes sense if the brain is a computer, you know? You feed it information and it processes the information, then it spits out the answer in this very linear fashion.
But that’s not at all how the brain works. Because the brain is so exquisitely sensitive to context, and that context can be the way our bodies are feeling and how they’re moving, that context can be literally where we are situated and what we see and what we experience around us, and that context can be the social context: whether we’re with other people, whether we’re talking to them, how those conversations are unfolding. All those things have an incredibly powerful impact on how we think.
And so, when we expect the brain to function like a computer, whether that’s in the office or in the classroom, we’re really underselling its actual powers — its actual genius — and we’re cutting ourselves off from the wellsprings of our own intelligence, which is the fact that we are embodied creatures embedded in an environment and set in this network of relationships.
This area of research has important implications for designers. The Extended Mind offers clear explanations and actionable suggestions for improvement. I’m grateful to Annie for coming on the show to discuss her work and share her insights. I hope you get as much value from our conversation as I did.
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