Book Review – The Extended Mind: The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain
Reading Time: 3 minutes
My book review is on Annie Murphy Paul’s book, The Extended Mind: The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain
. Paul is a science writer and in this book digs deeply into the science behind how people think using extensions of the brain. The extensions that she discusses include the body, our surroundings, and the people around us. She makes the case that we must look to these extensions for intellectual growth because our brains have a finite capacity. I won’t try to cover every area that she discusses, but she does have some observations that are closely related to improving team performance. Here are some of my favorites:
Teach your teams to pay attention to how we learn through the body. Two examples: First, engage physically around whiteboards or information walls, using arm gestures to improve learning and retention. And second, focus on gut feelings – which might actually be less prone to bias than intellectual observations. According to the author, gut senses (like the prickly hairs on your arms or the queasiness in your stomach) precede intellectual realizations.
Movement serves several functions. It helps us learn and remember material, particularly when the movement pattern is directly tied to the information. And contrary to the notion that we need rest breaks to reenergize our brain, what we really need are movement or exercise breaks to do that.
When planning and managing your projects, keep in mind that “unlike computers—humans solve problems most effectively by imagining themselves into a given scenario.” (p. 60) This is what I’ve referred to when I talk about thinking about risks, or imagining what failure might look like.
An emerging new field, “neuroarchitecture” looks at how buildings and spaces actually shape the brain. Who knew?
In structuring team spaces, certain kinds of work benefit from solitude and certain kinds of collaboration are most ideally done with teams together in a close space. For all the talk about collaborating together, some research suggests that people need privacy to be truly innovative. And then, teams need to come together to share and brainstorm. Some studies found that open workspaces can actually decrease trust and cooperation.
I know virtual teams are the rage, and sometimes required right now, but “In a study using fNIRS brain-scanning technology, (functional near-infrared brain imaging system) a team of researchers at Yale University found that an area of the social brain was activated when adult participants looked directly into one another’s eyes, but not when they gazed at the eyes of others recorded on video.” (p. 196) It is important to understand that face-to-face talking is still quite important.
While there is so much value to working together as a team, we must guard against groupthink. Try having attendees write out their thoughts, post around the room and then allow people to add comments. Also, leaders need to guard against expressing too many opinions, too early in meetings, in order to not stifle others. When others express their opinions, try a four step response: “we should acknowledge, repeat, rephrase, and elaborate on what other group members say.” (p. 233)
For years, I have promoted the development of a work breakdown structure – a visual structured way of looking at the project. According to the author, this “act of creating a concept map, on its own, generates a number of cognitive benefits. It forces us to reflect on what we know, and to organize it into a coherent structure. As we construct the concept map, the process may reveal gaps in our understanding of which we were previously unaware.” (p. 145-146)
When we work on teams it’s important to understand who is responsible for doing the work; it’s just as important to know who the knowledge experts are. Remember when I have talked about recording the name of the risk and issue experts in the logs? Creating intelligence around a project is not a linear process. Embrace project artifacts that make the details concrete. And for those unfamiliar with the term project artifacts – think about your risk and issue log, your communications plan and stakeholder matrix, requirements documents, business case analysis, and your work breakdown structure as examples of artifacts that can help you define your project in concrete terms.
Hope this book review was as enlightening to you as it was to me.
Thanks for reading. Questions? Just ask.