Helping Students Think With Their Whole Bodies

EdSurge Podcast

Helping Students Think With Their Whole Bodies

A growing area of research suggests that thinking is influenced not just by what’s inside our skulls, but by cues from our body movements, surroundings, and other people.

By Jeffrey R. Young     Sep 26, 2023

Helping Students Think With Their Whole Bodies

This article is part of the guide: The EdSurge Podcast.

When people think about thinking, they typically conceive of the brain as a kind of machine or muscle that is strictly confined to our skulls. As Rodin’s famous sculpture of the thinking man propping his chin on his hand, we imagine the mind as all in our heads.

But what if those typical metaphors for our brains are limiting our capacities to think and learn?

That’s the question posed by science journalist Annie Murphy Paul, who points to research emphasizing the many ways that thinking is influenced not just by what’s inside our skull, but by cues from our body movements, by our surroundings, and by other people we’re interacting with.

Paul, who says she reads academic journal articles for fun, first encountered this argument when she came across a 1998 paper by philosophers Andy Clark and David Chalmers, who argued that the human mind extends into the world around it. And that sparked her interest in digging into learning science research that she’s gathered into a recent book, “The Extended Mind: The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain.”

Those who design our tech, she argues, are particularly prone to a brain-bound vision of the mind, forgetting that users of smartphone apps and computers are situated in bodies and move about the world in physical space with others.

EdSurge recently sat down with Paul to dig into her arguments about rethinking how we think, and what educators can learn from the research.

Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts, or use the player on this page. Or read a partial transcript below, lightly edited for clarity.

EdSurge: What is it that you think is missed in popular notions of our mind?

Annie Murphy Paul: Our education system is very much dominated by what you might call a brain-bound model, which is the idea that thinking happens inside the brain. It's sort of sealed inside the skull. And moreover, that intelligence is the kind of lump of stuff that's either bigger or smaller, and we can weigh it through tests and assessments.

And that's challenged by the notion of the extended mind, which as I mentioned comes from philosophy. … It was an article by philosophers David Chalmers and Andy Clark, and they started off that article by saying, ‘Where does the mind end and the rest of the world begin?’

And that to me was a really provocative question, a potentially generative question, in part because it seems like it has an obvious answer or a conventional answer, which is that, ‘Well, the mind stops at the skull, right? The mind is sort of identical with the brain.’ And that's the kind of model that dominates our education system.

But what Chalmers and Clark were saying was that the mind extends beyond the head into the rest of our bodies, into our physical surroundings, into our relationships with other people, into the use of our devices, our technologies. And that to me was a really exciting idea because it meant that if we could improve the quality of those raw materials that we do our thinking with — and if we could improve our skills and abilities at using those outside-the-brain resources — that was a kind of new way to get smarter. It didn't mean that our only option was to exercise the brain or make the brain smarter or stronger. We actually could improve the quality and our use of all these outside-the-brain resources as a way to get smarter and more effective.

You talk about three main ways that the mind can be thought of as extended, and I’m hoping to go through them one by one. The first you talk about is “embodied cognition.” What is that and why is it important?

Embodied cognition is the idea that we don't just think with our brains, we think with the sensations and movements and gestures of our bodies. So I'll just start with that first one — sensations. That actually has a less jargony name, which goes by our gut feeling.

We all know what that means, that there's a kind of wisdom or a kind of informed sense that our bodies seem to have that might elude our conscious minds. And there's a term called interoception that describes that flow of internal sensations and cues that our educational system and our culture more generally tends to tell us to ignore. But what embodied cognition suggests is that we should actually be tuning in a lot more to those interoceptive sensations through meditative practices like the body scan, and that those interoceptive sensations actually have a lot to tell us about the situations that we find ourselves in.

How does that play out in classrooms?

Yeah, so the brain-bound approach to thinking and learning, which is dominant in our education system, suggests that all we need is our heads. And these days, especially when we're in Zoom meetings, we can actually feel just like we're heads, or a brain and a vat. But in fact, the human organism thinks with our whole bodies, which includes our internal sensations and our physical movements and our gestures. So the more we can bring the body into learning, the better. I find that we are good at doing that with young children with early education, we think it's okay for them to run around and to interact with materials and use manipulatives. But as students get older, we have this notion that they should put all that away and start doing things just in their head.

But what the science of embodied cognition shows is that the more we can sort of externalize our thoughts and our thinking processes, get them out of our head and express them through our bodies or learn through our bodies and our senses, the better our learning will be. So I think we need to bring some of that early education spirit of having the body be part of learning into middle school, high school, college, all of that, because we are embodied creatures. We can't be anything but embodied creatures, even as adults. And so embodied cognition suggests that this head-first or brain-bound approach to learning is really misguided.

What about the second category of research you tackle in the book, which is known as situated cognition?

Situated cognition is the idea that where we are, our physical environment, affects the way that we think. And that's one way in which our brains are really different from, say, a computer, which works exactly the same way. My laptop works the same way in my home office as it does if I were to take it out to a park and sit on a park bench. But human brains are not like that. They're exquisitely sensitive to context, and we think differently, say, in the outdoors than we do in an interior space. So given that it's a good idea for us to be aware of how our physical spaces are affecting the way that we think, and we can intentionally use them in the sense of going outside to restore our attention and replenish our attention, or we can design our interior spaces, our learning and working spaces to support intelligent thought in ways that the brain-bound model doesn't really allow.

The third area you explore in the book, it's distributed cognition. What's that look like?

That pushes against another really strong current in our culture, which is this idea of this individualistic streak — that ideas and thoughts belong to one brain, that they're sealed inside an individual head, when really we are such fundamentally social creatures that we learn to think and we learn to speak language in a social context. And thinking and learning is always irreducibly social and shared and collective.

So that's another way of thinking about intelligence is that it's not a lump of stuff sealed inside one person's brain. It's really a collective enterprise that we need to think about in social terms.

Some of these ideas that you've talked about sound a bit like common sense. Why has it taken so long to, or why many people may still not, realize these things that you're talking about?

Yeah, I agree. The extended mind, which is a relatively new idea in philosophy, is just reminding us of what was always true, which is that human beings have bodies. We're embedded in physical spaces, and we're a part of these dense social networks that describe us as full human beings. And, unfortunately, in a lot of settings, including educational settings, but also work settings, we're encouraged to think of ourselves as just brains, as just heads. And so the extended mind kind of invites us to remember what we have forgotten as a culture.

What are some takeaways for educators at older levels to do differently based on this research?

I’ll take one from each area of research.

One is bringing the body into learning — bringing physical movement and gesture as much as possible into the classroom.

The second one would be thinking really carefully about the spaces in which we were having kids learn, and trying to get them outside as much as possible. And then when they are inside, thinking about what kind of cues and signals are present in the physical environment that I think are particularly important are cues of identity. Kids should be able to look around and see cues that remind them of who they are in that particular environment, what role they're playing as scholar or artist or thinker. So I think it's useful for teachers and others to look around and see, ‘What are my kids seeing when they enter their classroom or their school?’

And then the third is this social piece. I think now that we're all back together in person and not doing remote schooling so much anymore, we can really take advantage of what psychologists called ‘groupiness.’ That's an actual scientific term. And that refers to a sense that a group of people isn't just an assemblage of individuals. They're really an entity unto themselves: a group. And that sense of groupiness tends to get people on the same page, people learn better, think better, and remember things better when they do it together with other people in that kind of cohesive, connected way.

You note that there are equity issues in education that stem from this research.

One of the exciting things to me about the extended mind is that it's another way of looking at issues of equity and equality. We have this idea that we can rank people according to how much intelligence they have in their brains, but if you shift to looking at things through an extended mind lens, then it's really about, well, what is the quality and the accessibility of the outside-the-brain resources that this person has?

Because our students don't have anything like equal access to, say, the freedom to move their bodies, or access to green spaces, or to safe spaces, to quiet spaces. They don't have equal access to helpful mentors or really skilled teachers or motivated peers. And if all of those things really matter for how effectively intelligent, how successful academically a person can be, then we need to shift away from thinking that intelligence is something sealed inside a person's head — it's more out here, in the world.

Hear the complete interview on the EdSurge Podcast.

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