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

Why this book:  Strongly recommended by my friend Jay and therefore selected by our Thursday morning discussion group. 

Summary in 3 Sentence:  The author’s thesis is that a huge, and under-appreciated dimension of our cognitive process takes place outside the brain, and is very much influenced by factors outside of our mind. She points out how there is a prejudice for reasoning with just our rational brains and minds, and that this prejudice ignores our intuitive senses which are tuned in to aspects of reality that are unseen by our rational minds. She spends much of the book arguing against what she calls “brain-bound thinking” and points to how psychological tests repeatedly demonstrate that we make better decisions and have better cognitive results when we take context, environment, and our other physical senses, and  and other aspects or our mental/emotional state into consideration when we are expected to deliver our best decisions and cognitive results. 

My Impressions:  I listened to this book which is narrated by the author.   I found it to be interesting and insightful by pointing out aspects of our cognitive and even emotional life affected by factors other than simply our thinking brain. Much/most of what she points out conforms to our intuitive experience, but which our “brain-bound” focus on  logic, thinking and decision making often ignores, at considerable cost to the results we are looking for.  Apart from simply pointing out that the environment in which we are thnking and deciding impacts the quality of our thoughts and decisions, she quotes the extensive research by neurologists and cognitive psychologists that reinforce what our experience tells us.

The book is broken up into three sections: Thinking with our bodies, Thinking with our surroundings,   Thinking with our relationships.  Each of these sections is further broken down into chapters which make the point that when we think and decide, there are a wide variety of both internal and external cues that we are often unconscious of, but which drive and determine what we think, how we think, and consequently what decisions we make.  Her point: Being aware of these factors and even controlling for them will significantly enhance the quality of our thoughts and decisions. 

A very busy reader could get the main points of the book by reading the Introduction, entitled Thinking Outside the Brain, and the Conclusion in which she offers a series of recommendations for enhancing our ability to think by giving attention to how our bodies, our environmental awareness, and our social environment affect and enhance our thinking and decision making.  But the detail and examples are driven home in the chapters and – if one is interested in this topic as am I, they are worth the time. 

Below are some of the points that caught my attention, but the best of the book to me was the third section on Thinking in Relationships which addresses the social environment – for team building and enhanced learning.  

Section One: THINKING WTH OUR BODIESis broken down into three chapters with different foci: Thinking with our sensations, our movement, our gestures.  She references Damasio and Kahneman (Thinking Fast and Slow) as well as many others.  Some of this echoes what I read in The Power of your Subconscious Mind (by Joseph Murphy.)  The author would probably say the subconscious mind is more directly tied to our total body awareness than is our conscious mind. 

  • She introduces a new term or concept to me: “Interoceptive awareness – being aware of and able to use internal signals that indicate to us what our body is telling us BEFORE and below our awareness level and before we have consciously thought about the topic or made a decision.
  • She suggests a meditative practice of focussing individually on our different body parts to better get in tune with what what our body is telling us.
  • She points to a large body of evidence that our body has frequently made well decisions before our conscious mind is even aware of the issue.
  • In the chapter Thinking with movement, she points to how we seem to think best when indeed we are exerting some energy – taking a walk, standing, engaged in light exercise. That is, up to a point – when we are exerting ourselves, breathing hard, heart rate up – when we reach a point of “transient hypofrontality” a state of decreased cerebral blood flow, when the demands of our body for energy and oxygen shut down the brain’s prefrontal cortex ability to reason.  It’s a state of almost meditative neutrality.

Section Two: THINKING WITH OUR SURROUNDINGS is broken down into three chapters: Thinking with natural, built and idea spaces.  In this section she emphasizes and as usual draws on extensive research that shows that WHERE we think – our surroundings – can have a significant, often dramatic impact on HOW and WHAT we think. Again, this statement may be intuitively obvious but she points out how it is ignored at great cost in the designing of office spaces, buildings, and places where people are expected to work and think productively.

  • Feeling connected to nature seems to open up peoples minds – not being distracted by our many demands placed on us by our busy civilized lives.  She suggests going alone and taking walks in natural environments to rest, rejuvenate and reactivate one’s brain and body. And during such walks, new ideas, and broader perspectives emerge. 
  • Being in a space that feels welcoming and comforting is much more conducive to creative thought than the standard cold and impersonal offices and workplaces that were designed in the late 20th century.  She is particularly damning of large, open, cubicle office spaces which create a psychological pressure that drains the mind of energy and creativity.
  • How can work spaces provide a sense of privacy and security while also facilitating social interaction and sharing of ideas?  She points to new experiments in this area.  
  • The “space of ideas” refers to how our thinking is affected by ideas that come from outside us – this is obvious but she points to how creative incubators have been very effective in the opening of minds to new possibilities 

Section Three: THINKING IN RELATIONSHIPS is broken down into three chapters: Thinking with experts, with peers, with groups.  As someone who has spent his life working in and trying to optimize teams and teamwork, this section was most interesting to me and confirmed much of my own experience.

  • She points to how well-integrated teams make better decisions than even the best and smartest experts – as long as the teams are receptive to different ideas and all members feel free to share their ideas, and that the interpersonal dynamics in the team do not suppress free idea expression.  This reminded me of a book I read a few years ago, which made an impression on me:  The Wisdom of Crowds (by James Surowiecki)
  • She gives examples of what she describes as “socially distributed cognition” where the mulitple minds and mental energy in a group fuse to be more than the sum of their parts, with each persons strengths contributing to a greater whole. 
  • She talks about the power of imitation as a source of creativity, in contrast to the archetype of the lone creative genius.  She tips her hat to the lone genius, but points to how even they are often beginning by imitating. Imitation of what has worked before provides a foundation upon which to build new possibilities and even diverge from what is being imitated. 
  • She describes the power of physical or “behavioral synchrony” in building teams – doing physical things together, in synch. She gives the example close order drill in the military and how it can create a sense of group euphoria -which I have experienced doing “command physical training, and running and singing “Jodie calls” in the military.
  • She gives examples of “shared physiological arousal” and the impact it can have on our thinking and our relationships – with examples on the positive side, of groups of sports fans watching their team win (or lose) or being mesmerized by a great orator, and on the negative side, mob mentality.
  • She points to how multiple people focusing on the same thing or issue at the same time brings them together. This shared attention enhances their shared cognition.
  • She discusses giving attention to the “group brain” – how it works, what enhances it, or divides it. She offers proven suggestions for building group brain and therefore enhancing collaboration with shared experiences, learning together, feeling together, eating together. These are all  tools  that good coaches and military leaders have employed for millennia. 
  • She pays particular attention to how much of our traditional  education system ignores the social aspects of learning, by focussing on sitting still during in classrooms and lecture halls, and emphasizing studying alone. 
  • She emphasizes the value of learning by doing, group work, engaging with others in the learning process, the value of “tacit knowledge.” 
  • She says, “We think best, when we think socially.”

I’ve told a few friends that though this book can be repetitive in citing so many studies and research to make its points, it is a book that (I believe) anyone engaged in teaching, learning, or leading should read.  We all need to be reminded that how we think, communicate, interact with others, and that makingdecisions is so heavily affected by factors that are outside the boundaries of our traditional emphasis on brain-bound thinking – paying attention to these factors could only improve the results we seek.  

POST SCRIPT Since posting this, Annie Murphy Paul spoke at a Cleveland Guardians Leadership Speaker’s Series and did a fine summary of her book.  The Guardians put out a summary of her talk, which is worth reviewing: 


  • Conventional wisdom, the mind is in the skull; but the article proposed a much broader perspective – space, people, tools…the world
  • How to operationalize this idea
    • How to carry out our learning
    • How to live our day to day lives
    • Can this be put together in a practical day to day guide

Overview of the book – Thinking with…the Body, Spaces and Relationships 

  • Thinking with the body
    • Interoception- ability to tune into the sensations of our body beyond our ears, eyes, touch – an ability to sense the  stream of internal information
      • Use of a Body Scan to sense your body – to Tune-In; an informal check-in
    • Thinking with Gestures.  Hand gestures are more than communicating with others; they are part of our thinking process
      • Gestures are often a few milliseconds ahead of what we actually say
      • Gestures help us communicate
      • Let gestures become part of your virtual communication as well
    • Thinking with Movement
      • Micro-movements help keep us alert
      • Moderate intensity movement – Kahneman / Tversky vignette of walking together to enhance their thinking
        1. Vignette demonstrates 3 key areas – thinking in nature, thinking with movement and thinking with relationships.
      • Intensity of exercise can dial down the prefrontal cortex a bit and trigger a dreamlike state – can lead to a more creative and associative state
  • Thinking with Space
    • Natural world.  Thinking in nature can be restorative (Attention Restoration Theory)
    • Built space.  Make your space more cognitively congenial by adding queues of identity and belonging – “ambient belonging”
    • Thinking with space of ideas.  
      • Counter the “brain-bound” convention of thinking in our heads
      • “Cognitive Offloading” – get it out of your head.  Sticky notes, white board, duel monitors, in order to reduce cognitive load of remembering
        1. Also allows you to process the information differently
        2. Treat ideas as a 3D landscape of ideas – can move and manipulate ideas
  • Thinking with Relationships
    • Thinking with Experts.  Model of expert teaching novice
      • There is a gap; experts have a different way of understanding or chunking the material.  The novice cannot process the same way
      • Gap of what is explained (expert) and what is understood (novice)
    • Thinking with Peers.  
      • We often separate academic from social; but the brain is fundamentally social
      • We are social all the time; how to leverage the social brain in service of our work
        1. Teach others – no better way of knowing than teaching
        2. There is a social motivation to teach / share
      • Power of telling stories; stories are psychosocially privileged.  More likely to remember and act on the story
      • Power of debating and arguing.  The practice of debating helps us to see things we normally would not see
  • Thinking with Groups. 
    • Groupiness – the kind of state that arises when people are not just an assemblage of individuals in the same place, but actually a group, an entity unto themselves
      • Learn and train together; have intense experience together, and participate in rituals together (all same place and same time)
      • Power of Synchronous movement – i.e. walks, meals, etc
  • Closing.  The Extended mind recognizes the limitations of our Biological brain.
    • We are not robots; we cannot just sit in meetings and grind
    • We need to acknowledge our bodies and how we interact with nature, space, people


About schoultz

CEO of Fifth Factor Leadership - Speaker, consultant, coach. Formerly Director, Master of Science in Global Leadership at University of San Diego; prior to that, 30 years in the Navy as a Naval Special Warfare (SEAL) officer.
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