The Extended Mind

Human cognition is largely understood to be a process that happens inside a single human brain. Well… in schools… western schools like the ones in which I was taught and in which I taught and still work are grounded in the assumption that our cognitive abilities are based on what we can do with our brains and nothing else. We see that in the strategies for evaluating students as well. Students are not supposed to use any technology, resources, and especially people.

While this makes some sense… individuals’ capacity to perform cognitively on their own matters, and is worth measuring… but to ignore humans’ capacity to use what Annie Murphy Paul called The Extended Mind in her 2021 book seems to be ignoring much that “smart” humans do when they are being “smart.”

The idea that human cognition is a system comprising our brains, but also bodies (like when we count on our fingers), technologies (like when we write down notes to save remembering), and people (like when we ask how to prepare a favorite dish) has been debated for several decades. While philosophers have yet to resolve this, for those of us who work to help people develop their cognitive abilities it issues seems clear. Our brains work better when we support them with “things’ outside our brains. Paul reviews these clear an approachable language.

The Extended Mind is organized into three parts: Thinking with Our Bodies Thinking with our Surroundings, and Thinking with our Relationships. Much that is presented in the book is not new. I have seen generations of children taught gestures to remember lyrics to prepare for concerts. Other ideas Paul describes are becoming more common in schools and other spaces. For example, we know that students and patients who have access to green spaces learn differently and heal differently that those who do not. We know as well that humans are social learners and how they interact with experts, peers, and groups affect what they know and can do.

The contents of the book need no further description. The book is an easy read and is well-referenced, so grab a copy and read it. Read it if you are an educator. Read it and integrate the ideas into your classroom.