The Extended Mind: Using the World to Enhance Thinking

The Extended Mind: Using the World to Enhance Thinking

By: Tim Murphey

I used to think that my thinking was restricted to my brain, that thing in my head behind my eyes. When really, I have been using an extended brain many times without realizing it. It seems that my parents, siblings, coaches, and teachers even trained me to extend. An extended brain is a brain that incorporates aspects of the world as part of its cognition. The world then too is part of the thinking.

When I was 4 & 5 years old, my dad used to play a game with me called “poor daddy”: after work each day he would come home and lie on the carpeted floor of our living room and little Tim would straddle him like a horse. As he rolled back and forth across the carpet, slowly at first and then quickly and changing directions often, I would have to jump up and down not to be crushed by him, giggling myself crazy. (Now that I know more about the beneficial effects of hearing children laughing, I can understand his joy at doing this with his children, and the benefits not only physical but neurological.)

In this way, I did not just learn how to jump from his movements, rolling on the floor, the way I interacted with them made them deeply integrated into my cognition. They became memories that my brain used to think and experiment with diverse moving bodies in diverse environments.

Family Picture: I am the baby shaking hands with the dog circa 1953-4 in Dalonega Georgia. Before I was born, the family had just spent 3 years in Japan as you can see from the baboo furniture and mirror.

Dad also built a small swimming pool in our yard in Florida in which he taught us to swim. He would take me, hanging on to his back, into our pool and I learned quickly that I could not breath under water! He had been an alternate for swimming in the Olympics in the 1920’s and since we also lived a block from the beach, we regularly swam in the ocean, and walked and ran on the beach after dinner each night. I also remember jumping our way from boulder to boulder near the seawalls. The boulders had been dropped on the beach to keep it from being washed away during hurricanes. Here too, the environment entwined itself with my thinking as I jumped from one idea to another and considered how several might blend together for further affordances.

I was also graced with a mom who was an elementary school music teacher. I was her fifth and last child, and she seemed a bit tired of teaching music at schools and to my four siblings, so a lot of my enthusiasm for music came from my sisters and brothers. We were continually singing and writing songs with our everyday conversations. I heard them playing the piano, guitar, violine, and accordion but never got any formal lessons myself. But academically I ended up doing my PhD on the use of music and song in language learning, after making two musical albums and playing in several groups. In the front of my dissertation I wrote: “Dedicated to the humming of my father’s voice that I first heard in my mother’s womb.”

The 5 kids, just before I graduated from high school with a broken thumb from jumping into a sinkhole-lake (lots in Florida) that was not as deep as I thought.

That music seemed to naturally flow from my siblings directed my cognition in these directions. The effects of our relationships and working together became a natural part of my thinking too.My rolling, swimming, and walking father was an extension of my brain that taught me how to move and adjust my own body to survive in different environments (the living room, the pool, the beach, and the ocean). The music from my siblings inspired me to not wait for the music but to make it up myself. Indeed, the brain uses our bodies, surroundings, and relationships as ways to improve its thinking and adjusting.

Annie Murphy Paul has pondered these aspects of our cognition well in her book The Extended Mind (2021) in three parts, each with 3 chapters: Part 1 Thinking with our Bodies (with sensations, movement, and gesture), Part 2 Thinking with our Surroundings (with natural spaces, built spaces, and the space of ideas), and Part 3 Thinking with our Relationships (with experts, peers, and groups). YouTube

Paul’s prologue summarizes her main ideas about how the mind extends itself and how many of us have not realized it yet:

Much less attention has been paid to the ways people use the world to think: the gestures of the hands, the space of a sketchbook, the act of listening to someone tell a story, or the task of teaching someone else. These “extra-neural” inputs change the way we think; it could even be said that they constitute a part of the thinking process itself. (p. ix)

Paul’s book is dedicated to the extensions that minds use to enhance our everyday thinking. In the past, the brain was often seen as isolated and thinking on its own. However, there is “a kind of secret history of thinking outside the brain” (ix) that Paul so wonderfully describes and illustrates in three insightful ways:

First there is the study of embodied cognition, which explores the role of the body in our thinking: for example, how making hand gestures increases the fluency of our speech and deepens our understanding of abstract concepts. Second, there is the study of situated cognition, which examines the influence of place on our thinking: for instance, how environmental cues that convey a sense of belonging, or a sense of personal control, enhance our performance in that space. And third, there is the study of distributed cognition, which probes the effects of thinking with others—such as how people working in groups can coordinate their individual areas of expertise (a process called “transactive memory”), and how groups can work together to produce results that exceed their members’ individual contributions (a phenomenon known as “collective intelligence”).” (p.x)

For situated cognition think of Western churches or eastern Buddhist meditation environments, or a walk in your favorite park, forest, or beach and how just being in those environments altered your thinking. For distributed cognition think of times when you have had enlightening conversations with colleagues and friends and how the new ideas seem to just flow as you think of things you would not have conjured on your own. For embodied cognition, think about how your focus and thinking can change after a bath or when you are hungry.

As an illustration of the three sorts of cognition, allow me to be a bit autobiographical. I was a hyperactive child in elementary school, but I thankfully had one wise teacher in third grade who allowed me to stand up in the back of the room and rock from one foot to the other as she taught. I can still remember the moment I realized I was rocking to the beat of her speaking. When she stopped, I did. Playing sports in high school it would have been impossible to do well if I could not have calculated the constantly moving positions of my partners to receive passes from me and score, and it was of course very different on the basketball court and on the football field. And thank God for Ms. Helgen who dared to ask us adult questions in high school that we could talk about and explore in small group discussions. Learning to think with the help of our bodies, our environments, and other people are crucial facilitators of effective cognition.

Walking and talking with friends and colleagues on a beach or in a park entail all three of the ways of the extended brain. And teaching others also is a great way to extend our own knowledge. Paul writes: “The experience of teaching others can help tutors become more fully integrated into an academic or professional community… This “cascading mentorship” model, in which participants both teach and are taught, shows promise in many settings, including the workplace. Just as students benefit from teaching their classmates, professionals can gain from advising their colleagues” (ibid p. 198, Murphey et al. 2022).

Even when dialogue becomes argument, “…research has consistently found that argument—when conducted in the right way—produces deeper learning, sounder decisions, and more innovative solutions (not to mention better movies)” (p. 203). Paul cites David Johnson a psychologist at the University of Minnesota who wrote, “It is a general rule of teaching that if an instructor does not create an intellectual conflict within the first few minutes of class, students won’t engage with the lesson” (Paul, p. 203). Intellectual conflicts provoke brains to think and engage themselves as solution hunters. Perhaps the above quote would be a good one to share and discuss with your colleagues and then give them a copy of this book to review as well! We all should ask ourselves, “Am I encouraging students to use their bodies, spaces, and other people in ways that can enhance their learning?” For example, do I organize my classes so that students can move their bodies frequently in our classes (stretching, juggling, playing, explaining, etc.) to embody new vocabulary, change the places they sit in each class to allow a diversity of partners and diverse intellectual environments.

I wish you all a good cohort to talk with, a comfortable yet maybe challenging environment to walk through, and insight into how your body feels continually in order to better understand the communications you may be hearing in your environments.

When your body learns something really well, like skiing, then your brain has offloaded it and it can think about juggling other things, like juggling balls. (Tim, circa 2005 Vermont).

Paul’s conclusion chapter is worth reading several times at least (I’m going on 4). It lists the many ways (9 below) that we might better use our minds in a “curriculum of the extended mind.” Some are immediately understandable, while others might need some re-thinking and re-imagining. Enjoy![1]

    1. Offloading –Offloading is using our body, the environment, and relationships to cue our brains to remember information, Using gestures for idioms, or posters on our walls with notes, or calendars so we don’t have to make our brain remember how many days there are in a certain month, or when our next conference is, etc.
    2. Artifacts – Display things that help us to explain experiences and ideas of greater depth. For Tim it might be juggling balls, pictures, students’ papers, etc.
    3. Alter our own state – Example: On the high school football team, before each game the coaches would make us quietly lie down in the locker-room for about 20 minutes before the game. Then they would play some loud music to excite us about the game. I can still remember banging my head against the lockers (with my helmet on) and running outside screaming “We will, we will, ROCK YOU!”
    4. Re-embody – I had a student once hold up his “to-do-list” and start “running behind it!” to memorize the idiom “running behind schedule!” Or if you pinch your lips with your fingers and say “my lips are sealed” it is easier to remember the idiom by re-embodying it.
    5. Re-spacialize – Our brains process and store information in the form of mental maps.
    6. Re-socialize – research shows that the brain processes information more deeply and differently if it is being taught, presented, discussed, etc. with others.
    7. Generating cognitive loops—Allow our brains to use the world around us to think better through thoughtful routines and investigations and innovations.
    8. Generating cognitively congenial situations – respectful relationships with fellow thinkers, without domineering and with partnering and openness to communal dialogue. “The art of creating intelligence-extending situations is one that every parent, teacher, and manager needs to master “(248).

[1] Paul is a great science writer-researcher and she keeps your attention wonderfully throughout the book. She gives due credit to early neuroscientists, but she is not hesitant to criticize them for not realizing that our brain changes with body and environmental input, and that they can connect with others to realize solutions that never seemed possible. That many early neuroscientists did not take the extended brain into account seems careless, but the fact is that many other authors mention how walking (Kierkegaard, 1852 in Hong & Hong eds., 2000), moving, and talking in congenial places helps us realize that the brain has been extended from the beginning. It is perhaps time for all of us to upgrade our understanding of one of the most amazing guides in our lives.


Off-loading to your environment: we don’t have to know it all but can have resources that can allow ourselves to access what we might need about important things in our lives.

Embedding extensions is like having a growing community of cognitive structures that help people create more stability, belonging, and identity. “In a dynamic and fast-changing society that celebrates novelty and flexibility, the maintenance and preservation of valued mental extensions also deserve our respect (p. 249).

Tim’s Attempt at Extended Mind Applications of Paul’s Extended Mind

So how do Paul’s ideas fit into our lives? I started by examining my own. And thank God my brain is connected through the internet with Curtis and his ideas. He challenged me to rethink how these things might appear in my life and your life!

    1. Calendars – Getting older we need more reminders. I started using big calendars by my computers (usually on a wall) to keep track of the date, scheduled events, etc. as well as marking the taking of my vitamins and nutrients, upcoming presentations, articles due, etc. These calendars extend my memory.
    2. Physical signals to myself – I often ordered food to be delivered this summer from a regular neighborhood café. I sometimes found myself trying to remember if I had already ordered or not. Then I started putting my three juggling balls on my dining room table if I had already ordered, to remind me food was coming. After it was delivered, I returned them to my desktop. (Added value: they reminded me to juggle a bit and try new tricks and have some fun and laughter a few times a day.) The balls clarify a procedure.
    3. Essential places – I wear glasses sometimes, but I am often misplacing them. When I take them off, I try to always put them in the same place so I can find them. It does not always work if I am not near that place but I have started putting them in open high places that I can see more clearly. These strategies were derived from a crucial body need.
    4. Posting notes – I often hang notes in places to remind me of things. I also have paper and pens by my bed as I often think of ideas in the middle of the night that I want to remember in the morning. My notes extend my thoughts beyond the moment.
    5. Using the people around you: Using the pre-school’s laughter – Outside my sixth floor-corner-apartment from the window by my (stand up) computer I can see a pre-school playground. My rule is “I have to imitate the children, if they laugh, I laugh, if they run, I run (in place in my apartment).” I am also graced with two parks near the playground surrounding my corner apartment. So, I also hear children there even on non-school days, playing on the slides, playing basketball, etc. The children become a part of the cognition that determines my mood.
    6. Rethinking disturbances – A block away from my building is a main road going by some parks. Several times a day an ambulance goes buy with a siren to help someone in need or return them to a nearby hospital. The siren is very loud, and it used to disturb me a lot. Lately, I have turned it around as a reminder to take better care of myself, and to send wishes to those who are in need. The siren is a reminder to think about important things, processes, and people, i.e. care-taking.
    7. Think ahead about being nice and engaging! – When the delivery guy comes with my lunch, I try to think of new ways of saying thank you (in Japanese), and different things that might be relevant to say about the weather, the food, and the money I give him. I use his name (Kobayashi-san) to be more respectful and tell him the food is delicious, and how I much I appreciate his delivery. Amazingly enough, he has started bringing his daughter Haruna (about 10 years old) at times this summer to teach her the job (I suppose), and to give him more quality time with her (I assume). I wave hello and goodbye to her and wish them both a good day and to take care. Their coming becomes a part of my planning and socializing in an otherwise isolated pandemic era.
    8. Using your editors’ ideas! – I am so fortunate to be in this Brain SIG Think Tank and to get nudges from our editors and readers to improve and demonstrate things more clearly. And as a result, they become clearer to me too! The writing experience uses all three extensions to empower my thinking.

If you wish to see a great example of hand gestures and embodying words watch Amanda Gorman’s poetry at President Biden’s inauguration last year.

Readers’ Optional EMUSE Tasks: If you want to experience Extended Mind Use: (EMUSE)!

(Also, a possible use for your classes, EMUSE your students!!)

ONE: Which of the letters in “Tim’s Attempts” might fit the numbers above them in Paul’s curriculum list? Perhaps several might fit. Or perhaps a few might not.

TWO: Think of examples from your own environment that might fit the numbers. (If you are working in pairs or with a small group, you are probably already doing 6 and 8.)

THREE: Please discuss your classes with other teachers and ask the following questions: How can the body be incorporated in language learning? Is language embedded in situational cues? Is pairwork/group work leading to new thinking by learners?


  • Hong, H & Hong, E. eds. (2000) The Essential Kierkegaard, footnote on walking pp.502-503 (originally published in 1852).

  • Johnson, D., Johnson, R., Smith, K. (2000). Constructive controversy: The educative power of intellectual conflict. Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning 32 (January-February 2000) 28-37.

  • Murphey, T, Üstündağ- Algın,P. & Karaaslan, H. (Feb. 2022). Project proposal: Universal sharing and caring advising (UCASA). Submitted paper for the 5th Advisors in Language Learning course taught by Hayo Reindeer.

  • Üstündağ- Algın,P. Karaaslan, H. & Murphey, T, (Feb. 2022). Universal sharing and caring advising. (sent to RILAE Journal).

  • Paul, Annie Murphy (2021). The Extended Mind: The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: New York.

Tim Murphey is a part-time, semi-retired professor at the Research Institute of Learner Autonomy Education (RILAE) at Kanda University of International Studies and Wayo Women’s University Graduate School of Human Ecology. He also is an on-line collaborator at Ankara Yildirim Beyazit University (Turkey) with their student mentorship program.

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