Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Our Workplaces Think We’re Computers. We’re Not.

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Ezra Klein interviewed Annie Murphy Paul, author of The Extended Mind: The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain. (NB: There’s an unauthorized companion workbook and journal of 86 pages with the same title, a blatant effort to ride the coattails of Paul’s book. Do not buy that workbook and journal, but it would indeed be a good idea to buy a blank notebook, title it “The Extended Mind Workbook & Journal” and in it develop your own guide based on the book — asking yourself questions, writing in your own words the guidance the author provides, and keeping a journal of your thoughts and efforts as you apply what you learn from the book.)

You can can listen to the entire interview on “The Ezra Klein Show” on AppleSpotifyGoogle or wherever you get your podcasts. The interview transcript (not fully edited for grammar or spelling) begins:

EZRA KLEIN: I’m Ezra Klein, and this is “The Ezra Klein Show.”


Something I’ve been wrestling with lately, both in my head and then, of course, on the show, is what I’ve come to think of as productivity paradoxes, these things that look and feel to us like work, like productivity, that the culture tells us are work and productivity but turn out to be the opposite. They turn out to be distractions or they turn out to miss something profound about how we work or how we think or even how we live.

If you remember, for instance, my interview with Cal Newport from earlier this year, that was about one of these: the way constant communication on platforms like Slack and Teams and to some degree even email, it codes as work, it looks like work, and it’s often a distraction not just from work but from its fundamental precursor, focus. There are also, of course, distractions from life and leisure. When we’re not able to work well in productivity in the time we’re supposed to do it, it expands outward into everything else. So this isn’t just about work but about being able to balance work and the rest of life.

Then I began reading this new book, “The Extended Mind” by Annie Murphy Paul. Paul is a science writer, and her book, the work here, began as an inquiry into how we learn, but then it became something else. It became a book about how we think. Because what came to tie her research together was this 1998 article by the philosophers Andy Clark and David Chalmers called “The Extended Mind,” which argued that there was a, quote, “active role of the environment in driving cognitive processes,” end quote. That what you should think of as our mind, and certainly the way our mind worked, was extending out beyond our head and was intimately shaped, like actually intertwined, with tools, with people, with the environment, with the visual field. And subsequent research really, really bore this out. And the implications of it, I think, are profound.

A lot of this book is about recognizing that we have the intuitive metaphor of our minds, that they’re an analytical machine, a computer of sorts. And we’ve taken this broken metaphor of the mind and then built schools and workplaces and society on top of it, built the built environment on top of it. And the result is that our work and school lives are littered with these productivity paradoxes.

What so often feels and looks like productivity and efficiency to us are often the very activities and habits that stunt our thinking. And many of the habits and activities that look like leisure, sometimes even look like play, like if you’ve taken a walk in the middle of the day or a nap, those end up unlocking our thinking. If the question is, how can we be the most creative or come up with the most profound productive insights, you need to do that stuff.

And so if you read it correctly, in my view at least, this is a pretty radical book. It has radical implications not just for how we think about ourselves but for policy, for architecture, for our social lives, for schooling, for the economy. And I’ll say that it has stuck with me quite a bit. It has changed the way I structure a bunch of my days. I’m trying to work with my mind more and against it less. As always, my email for guest suggestions, reading recommendations, whatever, is

Annie Murphy Paul, welcome to the show.

ANNIE MURPHY PAUL: Thanks, Ezra. I’m really glad to be here.

EZRA KLEIN: You have a quote in the book that encapsulates kind of the whole of it for me, and you’re talking here about the limits of the brain as a computer, this analogy that we use all the time. And you write, quote, “When fed a chunk of information, a computer processes it in the same way on each occasion, whether it’s been at work for five minutes or five hours, whether it is located in a fluorescent lit office or positioned next to a sunny window, whether it’s near other computers or is the only computer in the room. This is how computers operate.

But the same doesn’t hold for human beings. The way we’re able to think about information is dramatically affected by the state we’re in when we encounter it.” End of the quote. Why is that true? Why doesn’t our brain work the same way in all contexts?

ANNIE MURPHY PAUL: Well, it has to do with the fact that our brain is a biological organ and an evolved organ that’s very different from a computer. And the computer metaphor for the brain has been dominant since the emergence of cognitive science in the middle of the last century, and it really permeates the way we think and talk about the brain, and it places these sort of invisible limits on how we use the brain, how we regard other people’s brains, and it’s because that metaphor is so faulty it leads us to act and to make choices in ways that are not at all optimal.

And so in this book, I wanted to challenge the metaphor of the computer and point out that, no, actually the brain evolved in particular settings, mostly outside. It evolved to do things like sense and move the body to find its way through three dimensional landscapes, to engage in encounters in small groups of people. These are the things that the brain does effortlessly, naturally. The brain is not a computer. It never was, and its failures are particular to its own nature, and it has to be understood on its own terms.

EZRA KLEIN: You argue that a lot of thinking — I don’t know if you’re quite saying happens in the body, but it’s certainly picked up by the body as opposed to picked up by our mental ruminations. And the body can in some ways be even more rational than what we think of as a brain. What do you mean by that? Make that argument for me.

ANNIE MURPHY PAUL: Well, as we go through our everyday lives, there’s way more information than we can process or retain consciously. It would just completely explode our mental bandwidth. But we are taking in that information, noting regularities and patterns, and storing them in the non-conscious mind so that it can be used later when we encounter a similar situation. Then the question becomes, well, if it’s non-conscious, how do we make use of that information?

And it’s because the body lets us know. I mean, that’s what we call a gut feeling or what psychologists, what scientists call interoception, which is the perception of internal sensations that arise from within the body. And people who are more attuned to those internal signals and cues are better able to draw on that wealth of information that we know but we don’t know. We possess it, but we don’t know it explicitly or consciously. So that’s what a gut feeling is. It’s sort of your body tugging at your mental sleeve and saying, hey, you’ve been here before. You’ve had this experience before. Here’s how you responded. It worked or it didn’t work. Here’s what is the right thing to do now.

But in our world where we are so brain bound, so focused on the cerebral and the things that go on in our head, we tend to push the body aside, to quash those feelings, to override them, even, in the service of getting our mental work done, when really we should be cultivating that ability, becoming more attuned and more sensitive to it, because it has all this accumulated experience and information to share with us.

EZRA KLEIN: You cite a study that just floored me by the psychologist Antonio Damasio, which looked at the body picking up some of these unconscious processes in a pattern recognition game. Can you describe that?

ANNIE MURPHY PAUL: Yeah. So Damasio set up a kind of card game online on a computer where players were asked to turn over cards from one of four decks. And they could choose which cards they wanted to turn over. And they were given a starting purse. The object was to gain as much money as possible and lose as little money as possible, because each card came with an associated reward or took some money away. And so the experimenter said go. People started clicking on the decks and turning over cards.

And unbeknownst to them, . . .

Continue reading. It’s interesting and offers a new perspective.

See also: Embodied cognition.

UPDATE: Toward the end of the interview, Ezra Klein says:

EZRA KLEIN: Well, let’s talk about the distinction you made right there between expanding and contracting the mind. Because a point you make in the book is that we often think about the demand side of our attention, which is to say, we think about what we want to devote our attention to and that we need to be tougher about being rigorous about where we put our attention. We need to work harder at devoting our attention. But you talk about working on the supply side of our attention, trying to expand the amount of attention we have, trying to replenish the attention we have. So how does using that framework change what you do? If I’m tired or I’m getting ready for a podcast, what do I do to expand the supply side of my attention?

I immediately thought of Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way (included, BTW, on my list of books I find myself repeatedly recommending). It’s a 12-week program of beginning each day by writing three pages in a journal (preferably by hand), without pausing — just free-associating and continuing to write. (If you’re stuck, just write “word, word, word,” until something comes to mind and continue.) She provides more information and some direction in her book, which IMO is worth getting — and the 12-week program is worth doing.

One of the things she mentions is that on one day each week, you schedule and keep an “artist’s date,” which is a period of 1-2 hours in which you get outside and walk around and take in impressions. It might be in a city, or in a neighborhood, or in a park. The important thing is just to take time to observe things happening.

She say that the morning pages are output, a flowing forth of ideas, and it is vital to also have time for input, to absorb impressions, observe things, and allow time for ideas to form.

Written by Leisureguy

14 August 2021 at 3:46 pm

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