The Extended Mind and Transformative Tech: Why it matters

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The Extended Mind and Transformative Tech: Why it matters

Our thoughts are intrinsically connected to our wellness, health, and cognitive tasks such as problem-solving and decision-making.  

I think most people believe thinking happens the same way a superhero uses superpowers: whether flying or reading minds, all a hero needs to save the day is contained within abilities that are solely managed by their brains.

Sounds simple enough. But what we don’t realize is, just like superheroes need a bite from a spider or a nearby building to crush their enemies, our brains also reach out to the external world to construct our thoughts. Our brains rely on our feelings, our surroundings, and, of course, our relationships with our fellow humans.

Maybe that’s our superpower – not reading minds, but using what’s in the mind of others. 🙂

Annie Murphy Paul has revolutionized the way we think about thinking by proposing we actively and consciously engage with our surroundings. This has profound implications to our mental health and, of course, opens new possibilities in the technology realm.

Together with Hagit Alon, Stephanie DuPont, Silvana Carolina Joy, Terence Daniels, Tara Lutman, Eric Nielsen, Quintus Jett, Maria Reina, Peter Tjeerdsma, we embarked on a journey to learn from The Extended Mind: The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain by Paul. Below is what we think matters for Transformative Tech.

Thinking happens outside the brain

Human brains are usually perceived as computers – a piece of hardware made with organic matter and electrical current, reseted to factory settings with proprietary software upon birth. A more dynamic analogy sees the brain as a muscle that can be exercised, improved, and grown. Paul, on the other hand, suggests that the brain is actually like magpies, a bird that builds its nest not only with tree branches but with materials found all around their environment. 

In her book, Paul presents the theory of the extended mind: thinking doesn’t happen solely inside the brain and is instead a result of incorporating what we learn from our bodies (through feelings, movement, and gestures), our surroundings (through natural spaces, built interiors, and externalized ideas), and our relationships (through experts, peers, and groups). 

Big Ramifications for Transformative Tech

Paul’s The Extended Mind makes us question whether our common way of perceiving thinking – that the only thinking which matters is the mental kind – really tells the whole story. 

Transformative technologies can support the myriad ways in which we expand our brains to solve problems, make decisions, and form relationships. For example:

  • If our bodies respond to the external world before our brains even have a chance to process that information, how can we become more aware of our feelings, reactions, and physical responses? Interoception, for instance, is the perception of sensations inside the body. Can technology improve our interoception by providing us with biofeedback and biological frameworks to identify and use our sensations?
  • Are there technologies supporting the creation of environments that are more conducive to extending our minds? How can technology help us revel in unbuilt, natural environments to take full advantage of nature’s impact on our brains? 
  • Because we use other people’s thoughts to construct our own, how can technology bridge people and facilitate communication? How can it help us translate what is in our minds so other minds can use it?

Big Ethical Considerations for Transformative Tech

Needless to say, the consequences of Paul’s revolutionary approach to thinking are huge for us.

For instance, as architects, designers, and engineers, we could soon build workspaces and living spaces that promote brain overflow, allowing us to easily tap into our environment to think more creatively and solve problems more efficiently. 

We could create wearables, sensors, and monitors that increase our interoception so we can name our body responses and feel our feelings.

Further, we could soon create technologies that will easily tap into other people’s minds. Which, of course, has ethical considerations and can get scary (“thought piracy” holds potential threat). 

Below is a summary of each team member’s take-away for our Transformative Tech community within the chapters of The Extended Mind.

As always, I am excited about your thoughts and opinions on how this new understanding of the brain changes the way you view, use, or create transformative technologies.

Nichol, and Hagit Alon, Stephanie DuPont, Silvana Carolina Joy, Terence Daniels, Tara Lutman, Eric Nielsen, Quintus Jett, Maria Reina, Peter Tjeerdsma.

P.S. If you want to participate in the next session.  We will be reading the classic Embodied Mind with the session on Dec 16th from 10-12 AM PST.  Sign-up here if you want to join.


Chapter TT Takeaway
Introduction, interpreted by Hagit Alon, PhD
  • The human thought process is not limited to internal brain processes only. We use what is encountered in the outside world to process information and make decisions. 
  • Technology designers usually focus on secondary brain capacities, such as memory, logical rigor, abstraction, and focused attention. Transformative Tech can act as a pioneer in technologies centered on primary brain capacities, which are outlined in the following chapters.
  • Recognizing and identifying how our brain uses the external world to function will enhance our thinking process and support the creation of transformative technologies. 
Thinking with Sensations, interpreted by Stephanie DuPont, PhD
  • Our bodies respond to the environment and then send signals to our brain for processing and interpretation. Not the other way around. Hence, being aware of the inner state of one’s body (interoception) can manage energy levels, increase resilience, lower stress, and improve overall well-being.
  • Body cues such as a shiver, a breath, a sigh, etc. can act as “somatic rudders”, allowing individuals to clarify and decodify their feelings and responses before carrying out decisions. Because the body reacts faster than the brain, technologies that enhance self-awareness through meditation, interoception, and similar practices are relevant.
  • The external world can enhance interoception, such as using wearable technologies for feedback and enhancing emotional intelligence – in this sense, botox can sever human connection as it “disables” body signals from ourselves and others.
Thinking with Movement, interpreted by Silvana Carolina Joy
  • Moving our bodies changes the way we think. The brain apprehends abstract information much more readily when it is “grounded” in bodily experience.
  • In children, the urge to move is tied to arousal modulation and has been shown to directly improve cognition through better focus and productive abilities. Adults are no different – we also need a “recess” through walks, exercise, and even fidgeting. 
  • Interventions based on even the smallest of movements can exponentially increase well-being. Moving our arms, standing up, walking, and other low-impact movements can increase our capacity for planning and decision-making.
Thinking with Gesture, interpreted by Nichol Bradford
  • Beyond mere hand-waving, gestures influence our thoughts and vice versa. Using gestures intentionally can help us think more cogently, speak more fluently, and understand others more deeply.
  • Gesturing can significantly aid memorization and enhance cognition. Interacting with visual artifacts, promoting spatial play, and pairing words to specific gestures are some of the suggested techniques for enhanced learning. 
  • Could technologies that encourage gestures in learning materials and human interactions be more effective at using the primary capacities of our brain?
Thinking with Natural Spaces, interpreted by Terence Daniels
  • Humans have visually and mentally adapted to outdoor spaces. Nature carries the sounds, scents, and sights we prefer, unlike urban environments which can get distracting, stressful, and jarring.
  • Experiencing nature can take many shapes – such as decorating your apartment with natural motifs, spending time in rural areas, and meditating outdoors.
  • While in nature, a sense of awe, natural patterns, and the “overview effect” can generate unconscious reactions in the brain that are metaphysical or “deeper than awareness”. Could transformative technologies use these phenomena to enhance and manipulate positive mental states?
Thinking with Built Spaces, interpreted by Nichol Bradford
  • We spend more than 90 percent of our time indoors, yet many of the spaces we occupy are not well-designed for extending the mind. 
  • Ways to rearrange our indoor spaces include: reducing environmental stimuli for increased concentration, having privacy and elements of belonging to enhance inclusion and welcomeness, having our own space and sense of privacy, and listening to instrumental music.
  • How can technology support the creation of intentionally built spaces that maximize our brain’s primary functions?
Thinking with the Space of Ideas, interpreted by Tara Lutman
  • Our brains are not wired for abstract thinking.. Using physical spaces to support ideas can help us think more effectively and efficiently – such as writing our thoughts on a whiteboard, in a journal, spread out across a wall, post-it notes, etc. 
  • Creating concrete models and representation of abstract ideas, allowing for body interaction, and using embodied resources such as using larger screens and multiple screens rather than small ones allow human cognition to leverage embodied resources.
  • Transformative technologies need to incorporate these embodied resources into their design instead of maximizing power and speed at the cost of interaction.
Thinking with Experts, interpreted by Eric Nielsen
  • There’s a paradox when it comes to learning from an expert. A novice doesn’t know the material well enough and may not be able to identify what they don’t know. An expert, on the other hand, knows it so well that it becomes “automatic”. How can experts transfer what they know and identify what novices don’t know? 
  • Effective ways to help with this translation include imitation, coaching, models, re-enactments, categorizations, and observations. 
  • Imitation may be the most powerful form of knowledge transfer. Humans imitate from the moment they are born. Using the techniques above and many more, cognitive and social/emotional skills can be more effectively honed.
Thinking with Peers, interpreted by Nichol Bradford
  • We think best when we think socially. Storytelling, debating, and teaching activate cognitive processes that remain dormant when we think by ourselves.
  • Active learning aids cognition, creativity, and problem-solving. 
  • Useful techniques include debating, teaching, creating instructional videos, telling stories, and externalizing points of view. Transformative technologies can incorporate these methods into learning environments at home, schools, and workplaces.
Thinking with Groups, interpreted by Quintus Jett, PhD
  • Group thinking is sometimes perceived as emotional, illogical, dysfunctional, and least intelligent. Individual cognition, in reality, is insufficient when making decisions in complex, fast-paced scenarios with abundant information and the need for diverse/specialized expertise. 
  • To develop a group mind, the group should learn together, train together, feel together, and engage in rituals together. 
  • Some examples of Group Mind and Collective Intelligence technologies include the use of “rapport detection” in smart meeting rooms or body-worn sensors to measure and report to group members their degree of behavioral symphony. 
Conclusion, interpreted by Maria Reina
  • In summary, external and internal elements converge to create the ability to think intelligently. 
  • Although the brain is an internal organ, fixed in its position, cognitive capacity comes from “ downloading” the brain’s content into our environments and relationships. 
  • The human body has a “mind” of its own that “thinks” before the brain even processes that information; body signals and psychological processing can feed cognitive capacity. 
Generalist (Thinking with Art), interpreted by Peter Tjeerdsma
  • Presence is the common thread of the above chapters. Technology can certainly act as an enabler, motivator, and mediator of thinking within the presented frameworks, but its main objective is to facilitate calm, patient presence – with ourselves, with each other, with our shared work, and with our world. 
  • What arises from the ways of thinking presented above is, essentially, art. By accepting our human condition and developing our cognition through brain-friendly methods, we are embracing the art of living well – and solving our problems more intuitively. 
  • Just like an artist is aware of the limitations of their medium and tools, we must extend our awareness when it comes to the body-mind bridge. The tools presented in this book allow us to extend our internal, subjective representations of ourselves to include elements of objective awareness out in the external world.


Comment (1)

  1. Jan Bozarth

    I am swimming in new thoughts and design ideas for my Metaverse storytelling for tweens and teens. Thank you.

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