How to think better

Founding Mother, Chard & Stripes

Metaphors matter, and Annie Murphy Paul wants to ditch the brain is like a computer analogy:

“When fed a chunk of information,” she says in her latest book The Extended Mind, “a computer processes it in the same way on each occasion, ….

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.”

“…the brain evolved in particular settings, mostly outside.”


The problem with faulty metaphors is that they lead us astray, sometimes majorly, like how our confused views of the brain have led to regrettable school and workplace design.

Not to mention crazy rules and expectations.

When likening the brain to a computer, it seems reasonable to expect it to work—well, no less—for hours on end in a windowless cubicle. It might also seem wise to make kids sit still while pumping them full of facts. But most of us recognize that’s folly, even without research to say why.

In a podcast interview with Ezra Klein, Paul says, “…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.”

Instead of forcing the brain to be something it isn’t, Paul wants to make the best of what it is.

Instead of a computer, she likens the brain to a magpie:

A bird that plucks things from its environment to make a nest, the way she now understands the brain plucks from its environment to assemble its thought processes. This, she takes to mean that…

“…thinking better is not about working the brain ever harder.

It’s about creating a space and a set of capacities wherein you have more and better resources from which to assemble your thought processes.”

Paul arrived at this place through science writing. I got there by testing spiritual teachings to my own satisfaction, like an idea I learned as an analogy: humans are like radios.

You can read “Try this instead of hustling or fighting” for more on that, but the basic idea is that Life / God / Universe transmits never-ending guidance and ideas—the best resources for our thought processes—that we can detect the more we tune into joy and other good-feelings states.

By detect, I mean things like getting flashes of inspiration, hunches / gut feelings, and impulses to do seemingly random things that turn into something good.

In my world, creating space and capacities to think better means doing what it takes to feel better—rethinking funky stories that enter my head, eating greens, taking naps or long walks outside, following the fun—to put myself in place to pluck Higher Intelligence that’s ours for the taking.

I can’t say Paul would concur with all of this, but she’d agree with thinking better by going outside.

Her latest book—The Extended Mind—is billed as revealing “how we can tap the intelligence that exists beyond our brains—in our bodies, our surroundings, and our relationships.”

If that’s something you’d like to learn to do, pick up a copy.

(By making a purchase from this post, you’ll earn me a small commission at no extra cost to you.)

If reading Paul’s book is too much right now, you can still glean some of her wisdom:

Listen to her interview with Ezra Klein or visit her website for quick Notes from The Extended Mind.

Topics include, …

There’s not one single way for being smart.
For young children, more gestures now mean more words later.
To understand an abstract concept, get moving.
John le Carre didn’t write alone.
Guess before you Google.

OK, folks, I’m out. Here’s to you getting your intelligence on 🙂

Dr. Mary-Elizabeth Harmon is a scientist turned storyteller and Founding Mother of Chard & Stripes, a “school” of prosperity making and word-of-mouth marketing platform for kind people, products and businesses in food, fashion & more. Subscribe to her newsletter here.