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Thinking Outside the Brain

Cogito, ergo sum,” René Descartes famously quipped in 1637. “I think, therefore I am,” became part of a doctrine that came to be known as the mind-body dualism. This is the gist: Descartes reasoned that the body was an extended, unthinking thing consisting in matter. The mind, on the other hand, was an un-extended, thinking thing, too complex to be broken down or defined as matter.

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Four centuries later, mind-body dualism has spread to corners far and wide, leaving behind a complicated legacy. It has extended itself all the way into the classroom, where educators will likely reward students primarily for their mental exploits. On the flip side, when students don’t succeed, it is because they are not up to the (cognitive) task. To get a good grade, students must “harness” their “brainpower,” “pay attention,” “focus,” or “study harder.”


However, “mental endowment is not boundlessly powerful or endlessly plastic,” argues Annie Murphy Paul in a June essay published in the New York Times. “Abstract concepts,” she continues, “are the order of the day in physics class; conventional modes of instruction, like lectures and textbooks, often fail to convey them effectively.”


Photo Credit- Shira Inbar


Our problem, hints Paul, is not so much thinking—after all, abstract thought forms a large part of our daily lives. It is that we spend too much time thinking in isolation. We would do well to “allow the world to assume our mental labor” by “thinking outside the brain,” as Paul says. The writer suggests four ways to do so:


  1. Technology: organizing schedules, for example, on a smartphone (and trusting the device to inform us in a timely and accurate manner).

  2. “Trusting your gut:” Paying attention to how the body reacts—a quickening heart rate, a shiver in your spine—to the environment in any given situation. Sensations, gestures, and movements are the body’s way of communicating with the brain, in a process that is often nonconscious.

  3. Physical space: getting ideas out of the head and into the physical world (i.e., words on a whiteboard or drawings on a piece of paper). Psychologists refer to this as the “detachment gain.”

  4. Social interaction: thinking with others. “Problems arise when we do our thinking alone—for example, the well-documented phenomenon of confirmation bias, which leads us to preferentially attend to information that supports the beliefs we already hold.”


“Thinking outside the brain” may sound out-there. But as Paul suggests, it is quite easy. When students build any Anatomy in Clay® model, they are effectively thinking outside the brain—in fact, they are using their whole bodies to learn, to recognize patterns, to explore.


This line from the article struck us hard: “When we turn a problem to be solved into a physical object that we can interact with, we activate the robust spatial abilities that allow us to navigate through real-world landscapes.”


Yes, robust spatial abilities. The entire process of building with the Anatomy in Clay® Learning System is an exercise in using our robust spatial abilities.


To learn.


Anatomy is a tricky subject because the way it has been traditionally taught depends on textbooks, diagrams, and rote memorization—all tasks that task the individual brain. And as Paul says, “the suite of human strengths, honed over eons of evolution, is wasted when we sit still and think.”


Four centuries ago, Descartes separated mind from body. Once separated, the mind became superior: the mind can live without the body, but the body cannot live without the mind.


The findings discussed in Annie Murphy Paul’s essay (adapted from a book called “The Extended Mind”) suggest otherwise. Somewhere, under the ground, Descartes may be rolling in his grave.

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