“The brain is not like a computer. It’s a biological organ which evolved to do certain things very well like moving, sensing, forming relationships to small groups of people and navigating through three-dimensional landscapes. It didn’t evolve to think about abstract, counter-intuitive or symbolic concepts – yet that forms much of what we do every day.”

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


This book will feel eerily familiar as you read it. With ideas derived largely from the 1998 research of Andy Clark and David Chalmers, its premise is that intelligence is not defined by what’s locked inside your skull but also through your body, the environment, and your relationship with others.

“Expertise- in a sense- is non-conscious knowledge that our body alerts us to”.

Paul makes the case for gut instinct, movement and problem-solving, gesture as an integral part of conveying complex notions, nature unlocking creativity, transforming ideas into objects and social interaction as powerful drivers of human intelligence. She uses case studies from Wall Street Traders, Nobel Prize winning physicists, the journalist Robert Caro and the painter Jackson Pollock to illustrate her well-researched text

So What? 

The Extended Mind is accessible and compelling. Its real value is to counter a drift in thinking towards proficiency in learning being bound up in knowledge acquisition and recall. As Paul says, “It’s the stuff outside our heads that makes us smart.” However, it’s the sort of book which could lead to cherry-picking. Those with very different views on cognition and learning, for example, could find excerpts to satisfy a range of preconceived if very different ideas.

Now What?

Paul reinforces and validates lots of our everyday experiences – how we think differently socially than when we think non-socially, for example – but also provides surprising insights which we can import into our own lives. Here’s a sample for you to consider

  • Movement. Radiologists notice far more in X-rays when they examine them while moving around, and even on a treadmill. Many scientists and writers suggest their best thinking takes place during a walk.
  • Gesture. When conveying complex information gestures are ‘load lighteners’ which make it easier to focus.
  • Nature. Being outdoors is restorative and good for working memory. Study раrtісіраntѕ walking through an arboretum ѕсоrеd 20% hіghеr on a working memory test than others walking through city ѕtrееtѕ.
  • Spaces. Privacy, reduced distractions, ownership of the space and reduced human traffic add to productivity.
  • Ideas as Objects. By using whiteboards or writing walls we can ‘offload’ and so reduce cognitive load burden, gain detachment by stepping back and benefit from interactivity.

Worth a read, then a re-read.