How the extended mind transformed the way I parent

Last updated: 06-07-2021

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How the extended mind transformed the way I parent

I’m the mother of two sons, a sixth-grader and a ninth-grader. They know I’m a writer; they see me tapping away at my laptop, and they know that when I’m recording a podcast, they have to keep the noise level down. But I’m not sure they know just how thoroughly the way I parent them has been transformed by my work—specifically, the theory of the extended mind, which is the subject of my forthcoming book.   The theory of the extended mind holds that we don’t just think with our brains; we think with the sensations and movements of our bodies, the tools and technologies we employ, the physical spaces in which we learn and work, and the social interactions we engage in with others. This theory has particular relevance for children who are growing up and going to school in our brain-centric culture, where intelligence is regarded as individual, internal, and innate.   What I want my kids to understand, and what I try to convey to them at every opportunity, is that the brain is not an all-powerful, all-purpose thinking machine that we can command at will to learn or pay attention or remember. Rather, it’s a very specific and limited organ, one that evolved to carry out tasks that are very different from the ones we ask of today. These limits apply to everyone’s brain, I emphasize; this is not a matter of individual differences in intelligence.   The biological brain is really good at certain things, I tell them: sensing and moving the body, manipulating material objects, navigating through physical space, and interacting with other people. The more we can leverage these natural human strengths in the service of learning, the easier and more effective learning will be.   Meanwhile, I add, the brain is not naturally good at grasping abstract or counterintuitive ideas, ignoring distracting stimuli, remembering information precisely and without error, or persisting at mentally-draining tasks for long periods. To do these things, the brain needs help—help from “outside the brain” resources, like the body, like physical space and physical tools, like social interactions.   What you don’t want to do when you’re learning or studying, I tell them, is sit in one place, not moving, not talking, just pushing your brain to work ever harder. That is a prescription for distress and disappointment.   My knowledge of the extended mind has influenced my parenting in so many ways: how I nudge my kids to go outside, aware that time in nature will replenish their depleted stores of attention; how I encourage them to tune into their internal signals (their interoception), and use this information to inform their choices and decisions; how I’ve noticed that a bout of physical exercise improves their executive function and self-control.   I covered some of this ground in a previous newsletter essay about how I myself use the extended mind—and all of it, of course, is covered in the book! Here I’ll limit myself to three aspects of the extended mind that I use with my kids all the time.   1. Gesturing Gesture isn’t mere handwaving; it’s an essential part of a cognitive loop in which our hand motions influence our thoughts and vice versa. More gesture leads to more fluent thinking and speaking; more gesture leads to more nuanced and sophisticated understanding. Here are some ways in which I promote the making of gesture: I gesture a lot myself. Research demonstrates that this kind of modeling encourages others to follow suit. I give my kids (and, when I’m teaching, my students) something to gesture at. Studies show that people are more likely to gesture when there’s a relevant artifact—a diagram, a model—nearby. I ask my kids and my students for impromptu explanations. This kind of improvisation is mentally taxing, so we automatically gesture more in an effort to shift some of the cognitive burden onto our hands. When my kids are studying their French or Spanish, I suggest that they pair each new vocabulary word with a corresponding gesture. This bodily movement sinks another “hook” into their memory for the word, making it easier to reel in later on. I help my sons choose instructional videos that show the instructor’s hand motions, rather than those that feature just a talking head. When participating in a class on Zoom, I tell them, they should sit far enough away from the camera so that their own hand motions can be seen. I say, simply: “Try moving your hands when you explain that.”   2. Offloading In our culture, we do way too much “in our heads”; we would all be thinking more efficiently and effectively if we offloaded our mental contents more often. There’s now an interesting new strand of research looking at the developmental aspects of offloading: how and when kids learn that they can get thoughts out of their heads and onto paper or onto a screen. This is a skill that can be cultivated—here are some ways I try to do so: My kids and I talk a lot about cognitive load, and how the brain can hold only so much information. They understand that it’s better to relieve the brain of the burden of remembering and keeping track, freeing up mental bandwidth for higher-level cognitive activities like reflection and analysis. I tell them about how the brain constructs a “mental map” of abstract information, just as it creates a map of a real-life landscape—and how turning that mental map into an actual, concrete artifact, a concept map, can help stabilize that information and make it more useful. I often ask my kids to draw a picture of a problem they’re wrestling with or a system they’re trying to understand (like, say, when one of them is studying photosynthesis in biology). Making a drawing instantly reveals gaps in their understanding that would have remained hidden if the information had stayed inside their heads.   3. Modeling You may have heard about the “curse of expertise”—the fact that experts are often poor teachers of novices, because their own knowledge is so second nature to them, so “automatized,” that they can no longer articulate it in a way that a beginner can understand. I try to remember that the curse of expertise applies to me as a parent—it’s been a long time since I was a kid, and so I have to make a special effort to make myself into a legible model for my children to learn from. Here are a few ways I do that: I learned from the legendary math teacher John Mighton the practice of breaking down a concept or a procedure (like, say, the method of long division), then breaking it down again—not just into steps, but into micro-steps. It’s not only that breaking it down in this way allows a kid to understand what might otherwise be a bewildering agglomeration of information; mastering one small step at a time also grants children a growing sense of confidence. Knowing that novices (i.e., kids and students) often don’t know where to direct their attention, I’ve begun exaggerating the salient aspects of a problem or a body of knowledge so that they “pop out” for the novice the way they do for me. This is called the caricature effect. Although a caricature of a famous figure is a deliberately distorted drawing, it is actually more readily recognizable than a more accurate rendering—precisely because the most salient aspects of the individual’s appearance (his toothy smile or big ears) are exaggerated. I keep in mind the useful notion of a “cognitive apprenticeship.” In traditional apprenticeships, the expert could show the novice what to do through a simple demonstration. But so much of our work today is knowledge work—so we need to make our thinking processes, and not just our physical actions, accessible. I do that by narrating out loud what’s going on in my head—for example, explaining to them just what I’m thinking when I edit a piece of my own writing.   When I embarked on the project of writing a book about the extended mind, I never imagined it would change the way I act as a parent. But I’ve come to believe that understanding our nature as human beings—that is, as limited creatures who transcend our limits with the help of the world around us—is really important for my children and for all children. Adults, too ;-).   If you have any comments or questions about what you’ve read, I’d love to hear from you! Please reply to this email, or send me a message at anniemurphypaul@gmail.com.   All my best, Annie  


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