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Reviews |  How to think outside your brain

The body is also particularly able to anchor abstract concepts in concrete terms that the brain understands best. Abstract concepts are the order of the day in physics class; conventional modes of education, such as lectures and textbooks, often fail to deliver them effectively. Some studies in the field of physics education have found that students’ understanding of the subject is less precise after an introductory physics course in college. What makes the difference is to offer students a bodily experience of the subject they are studying. They might encounter a torque, for example, while holding an axle on which two bicycle wheels have been mounted. When the wheels turn and the axis is tilted from horizontal to vertical, the student handling it feels the resistive force that causes objects to turn. According to psychological research, such exposures produce a deeper level of understanding, leading to higher test scores, especially on more difficult theoretical questions.

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Another extraneural resource available for our use is physical space. Shifting mental content out of our head and onto the space of a sketchbook or whiteboard allows us to inspect it with our senses, a cognitive bonus that psychologist Daniel Reisberg calls “the gain in detachment.” . This gain was evident in a study published in 2016, in which experimenters asked seventh and eighth graders to illustrate with drawings how a mechanical system (a bicycle pump) and a chemical system work. (the bonding of atoms to form molecules). . Without any further instruction, these students sketched their way to a more precise understanding of the systems they drew. Turning a mental representation into shapes and lines on a page helped them more fully elucidate what they already knew while revealing with ruthless rigor what they did not yet understand.

Three-dimensional space provides additional opportunities for offloading mental work and enhancing the powers of the brain. When we turn a problem to be solved into a physical object that we can interact with, we activate robust spatial abilities that allow us to navigate real-world landscapes. This suite of human strength, refined over eons of evolution, is wasted when we sit and think. A series of studies conducted by Frédéric Vallée-Tourangeau, professor of psychology at the University of Kingston in Great Britain, Gaëlle Vallée-Tourangeau, professor of behavioral sciences at Kingston, and their colleagues, explored the benefits of a such interactivity. In these studies, the experimenters pose a problem; one group of problem solvers are allowed to physically interact with the properties of the problem, while a second group only needs to think about the problem. Interactivity “inevitably benefits performance,” they report.

This is true for a wide variety of problem types, including basic arithmetic, complex reasoning, planning, and those that require creative insight. People authorized to manipulate concrete tokens representing elements of the problem to be solved bear less cognitive load and benefit from increased working memory. They learn more and are better able to transfer their learning to new situations. They are less likely to engage in symbol pushing or moving numbers and words around if they are not understanding. They are more motivated and engaged and experience less anxiety. They even get to correct answers faster. (Like the title of a research paper that Vallée-Tourangeau wrote with Lisa G. Guthrie, “Movements in the world are faster than movements in the head.”)

A final resource for increasing our spirits can be found in the minds of others. We are fundamentally social creatures, oriented towards reflection with others. Problems arise when we think alone – for example, the well-documented phenomenon of confirmation bias, which causes us to focus on information that supports beliefs we already have. According to the argumentative theory of reasoning, advanced by the cognitivists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber, this bias is accentuated when we reason in solitude. The evolved reasoning faculty of humans does not aim to arrive at an objective truth, stress Mercier and Sperber; it aims to defend our arguments and to scrutinize others ”. This makes sense, they write, “for a cognitive mechanism aimed at justifying oneself and convincing others to be biased and lazy.” The failures of the solitary reasoner arise from the use of reason in an “abnormal” – that is, non-social context. Vigorous debates, initiated with an open mind, are the solution. “When people who disagree but have a common interest in finding the truth or the solution to a problem exchange arguments, the best idea tends to win,” they write, citing evidence from studies of students, forecasters and jury members.

The minds of other people can also supplement our limited individual memory. Daniel Wegner, psychologist at Harvard, named this collective in memory of “transactive memory”. As he explained: “No one remembers everything. Instead, each of us in a couple or group remembers certain things personally – and can then remember a lot more by knowing who else might know what we don’t know. A transactive memory system can effectively multiply the amount of information to which an individual has access. Organizational research has shown that groups that build a strong transactive memory structure – in which all team members have a clear and precise idea of ​​what their teammates know – work better than groups for which this structure is less. defined. Linda Argote, professor of organizational behavior and theory at Carnegie Mellon University, reported last year that the results of an observational study showed that when a traumatic resuscitation team developed a robust shared memory system and l They used to direct tasks to team members the most they took, their patients had shorter hospital stays.

These four extraneural resources – technology, the body, physical space, social interaction – can be understood as mental extensions that allow the brain to accomplish much more than it could on its own. This is the theory of the extended mind, introduced over two decades ago by philosophers Andy Clark and David Chalmers. One of their 1998 articles published in the journal Analysis began by asking a question that would seem to have an obvious answer: “Where does the mind end and where does the rest of the world begin?” They then came up with an unconventional answer. The mind does not stop at the usual “limits of the skin and the skull,” they asserted. On the contrary, the mind expands into the world and increases the capacities of the biological brain with resources outside the brain.

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