Jun 2, 2021 • 11M

Mind (In) The Gap

The curious science of thinking using everything *except* our brains.

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Mike Sowden
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Hello! This is Everything Is Amazing, a newslettered journey into curiosity, attention and nonsense-mapping.

Today, some post-vaccination thought-noises I just made with my face, regarding an exciting new way to think about the human mind…


Hey everyone! I planned to have this piece with you late last week, but I had my first Covid-19 vaccination, and it completely knocked me flat for the weekend - it seems I am one of folk whose body has an immune response with a sense of drama. All good now, and I’ll be playing catchup for the rest of the week here.

So I went for my first vaccination on Friday morning. I had to get myself to Dreghorn, which is a wee town a dozen miles to the northwest of here, which meant for me, leaping on the train for only the sixth time in the last year.

I got on, stood in the doorway, lathering on a bit of hand sanitiser before steadying myself against the handrail, and watched the world blur past in a way I’ve grown accustomed to living without. 

It was only the next stop that I was going to. Less than ten minutes of travel. But damn, I just wanted to keep going. Just let me ride until the end of the line, and then turn right round and ride all the way back, or grab a different train and go who knows where. Wherever. Just let me stay on a train. But it’s not so much the love of travel itself that I was missing. It’s that I have all this writing I want to do this year - and trains seem to be the places where I write best.     

The Extended Mind: The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain: Amazon.co.uk:  Paul, Annie Murphy: 9780544947665: Books

I’m reading a fantastic book right now, the latest by Annie Murphy Paul, a science writer who is very interested in all the things that seem to affect our working intelligence.

You’ve probably heard of the ‘nurture vs nature’ argument, you know, your upbringing vs what is hardwired into your genetic code  - as some comedian described it somewhere, it’s either “my parents ruined me” or “I was already ruined”.

So, nurture vs nature is the kind of pithy soundbite that goes viral in the media because it sounds good, it has that singsong quality that’s pleasing to the ear. That’s a big part of why you’ve heard of it. And you’ve also heard of it because it’s an old idea, repeated by a lot of long-dead people, like philosopher John Locke who coined the whole Nurture thing back in 1690. 

Unfortunately, as I currently understand it, nurture vs nature has all sorts of problems with it. I’ll be diving into this another time because it has huge implications for curiosity and how we see the world. But for now, let’s ignore both nature and nurture, because they operate on the principle that your intelligence, today, right now, is fixed.

If you sit in your chair, your IQ is a certain number. And if you leap up and go for a walk, or glug back a mugful of espresso, or throw yourself in a cold river and splash around happily for a while, or get on your bike and pedal madly up a hill, your IQ is the same. Right? Your capacity for intelligent thought is unchanged. You may have a clearer head from doing these energetic things, but that doesn’t mean you’re actually smarter, right?

Annie Murphy Paul’s book - which I’m still reading, so this is the broadest and most imperfect of overviews - suggests this is the wrong way to think about human intelligence. It’s about the evidence supporting an approach that treats your intelligence as something you can improve depending on what you do, who you’re with and where you are, by treating your IQ as something that doesn’t just exist inside your brain.

So here’s a story. A while back, a friend was really struggling to write. She had loads of stuff lined up, blog posts and articles to pitch and a book to draft, and she’d bought this massive expensive writing desk for her house, and cleared out a small room for it, no distractions, all of that stuff. No icons on her laptop’s screen. Just her and the writing. That was the idea. But every time she went in there and sat down and tried to write: Nothing. 

This is pretty common for writers. I’ve seen it called writer’s block, you probably know that term too. Some form of it happens to anyone attempting anything and hitting a brick wall in their mind. But - look at that phrase. “Brick wall in their mind.” It’s an internal problem, right? If they were PROPER writers (or painters, or designers or whatever) they should be able to push through it. And they can’t, so something is wrong, and it’s them. They’re wrong. 

No wonder writers freak out about writer’s block. It’s Sunday morning at the Church of Blaming Yourself. 

But my friend, with her lovely new writing desk, was still publishing things on her blog. Really good things. So if she was blocked, how was she getting the writing done?

“Oh, I just went skiing,” she said. She loves skiing, she loves the energy of being around people who love skiing like she does, so she took her laptop and sat and wrote at the back of the bar in the ski resort she liked using. (The way she described all this was, “Well, I knew I HAD to get the writing done, and I wasn’t getting it done at home, so I just kind of squeezed it in elsewhere. Why am I such a failure at motivating myself?”)

What my friend found, I’ll argue, is that she’s smarter as a writer in that bar than she is at home. The thoughts that were so hard to generate at her writing desk were super-easy at the back of that bar. For her. Not for other people. For people who can only think deeply in something approaching silence, a bar would be the death of creativity. I’m sort of one of those people.

Annie Murphy Paul’s book, which is called The Extended Mind, looks deeply at the evidence for what she calls “thinking outside the brain” and maybe what my friend would call “going skiing.” 

First up, there Embodied Cognition - which is what your body is doing when you’re thinking. Ever had that thing where you have your best thoughts in the shower, or when you’re out for a walk? That’s because your body is doing something that is making your brain work differently. It’s not just that you’re just, you know, “having a break” - it’s that what you’re doing with your body is making your thoughts flow easier, helping you dig deeper, connect things together in a way you couldn’t do before. You are behaving smarter.

Also? It appears that people who wave their hands madly during conversation are generally helping themselves string words together better. There’s actual science on this.

(Rejoice, Italy, all is forgiven.) 

So, all this is actually something that travel writers should think about. When they’re wandering around taking notes and snapping photos, they’re, you know, travelling - they’re there in that place, moving through it in an excited state, blood pumping a little faster, senses are a bit sharper, they’re much more curious, they’re breathing in a certain type of air, smelling particular smells and so on - and of course their brains are all HOLY CRAP SO MUCH TO WRITE ABOUT HERE.

But that’s not how the writing part happens. Usually it’s in a hotel room, or even worse, it’s weeks later when they’re back home, sat at a desk like my friend, wondering why they’re finding it so hard to write, and wondering why their writing seems so flat, so lacking in...something. Of course it is. It’s lacking the part of a travel writer’s mind that changes everything: the place itself. 

Annie Murphy Paul calls this Situated Cognition - the power of context in our ability to think. The place where you think is going to affect how you think. I mean, this is kinda what this whole newsletter is about - if you want to become more curious, go do a bunch of random things and see what happens to your curiosity.

But it’s also why I’m mentioning all this right now. Because a while back, I realised I was a better writer on trains. 

When I had a pressing deadline coinciding with a train journey, if I had a table to open my laptop onto, I got it written quicker, I had more fun (you know, I found it more interesting and less easy to be distracted by everything else), and it ended up just better

And so I’ve thought for a few years now that a great way to write a book would be to grab one of those All You Can Travel rail tickets and just spend a week riding the rails. There is actually a way to do this here, it’s called the Spirit of Scotland ticket, £189 for eight days of unlimited travel on trains, trams, subways & some ferry journeys. Not available right now because of the pandemic, but - that would be a fine thing.

(And maybe a fine way to write with a collaborator, or for two writers to work on separate projects - periods of focus, periods of knocking ideas around, periods of leaping off the train and exploring madly. What a grand antidote to the loneliness of solo writing that might be…in amounts small enough to avoid you ending up sick of the sight of each other.) 

And since I love walking and I’ve noticed my best ideas happen when I’m doing it, I’ve also started trying to write on foot, by using dictation software (check out Otter - thanks to Al Humphreys for that suggestion, that’s a great tool to use for this). Writing a book while walking? Or editing a book, somehow? All that energy and wonder around you? What would THAT sound in the writing, and in the thinking that creates the writing? I’m currently rewriting a short book about rain, so I’m going to try doing some of it while walking, just to see what happens. I’m excited to find out.

So anyway. What do you do? What do you do? Through my calls with some of you, I’ve met journalists, doctors & nurses, designers, builders, tour operators, a scientist, an archaeologist, a lab technician, a forest ranger turning novelist, and lots of you doing things where straightforward labels don’t apply. And presumably you’d quite like to know how to do these things better. To be able to think better while you’re doing them, to have more fun, to feel like you have more energy left in the tank at the end of the day. All those things. 

So there’s one thing you can try here. Or maybe two things.

First: change what your body is doing, and see if it makes a difference. If your thoughts are sluggish while sat down, then stand up! Walk around. Try a treadmill or an exercise bike - remember Grandmaster chess-player Timur Gareyev on his bike? Before you think through something tricky, dance in the middle of the room for 60 seconds, in a really incompetent way like you’re a human-sized rubber chicken, just let it go everywhere. Or wave your hands like an angry Italian as you rehearse something back to yourself to see if it sounds good. Perform your thoughts as they come out.

And the second part of this is inspired by my friend. If anything that you’re doing using your brain becomes too hard to continue, don’t just sit there, annoyed at yourself because you can’t seem to muster up the gumption to start working. What if it isn’t you? Seriously. What if in this case, it’s the room? What if it’s the table, or your laptop, or the whole building? What if you are simply in the wrong place for this particular job? What if the best place is halfway up a tree, or on that seat by the drinks machine, or in a coffee shop, or, yes, at the back of a bar at your local ski resort? 

Again - if you’re faced with some version of the blank page of death, what if it’s not you? What if the place you do your thing massively changes your brain’s ability to do that thing?

Worth thinking about, I hope you agree.

Annie Murphy Paul’s The Extended Mind: The Power Of Thinking Outside The Brain is released in the U.S. on June 8th.

Images: Bjorn Snelders, Urban Sandem, Mike Sowden, Annie Murphy Paul.