The Extended Mind Book Summary - The Extended Mind Book explained in key points
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The Extended Mind summary

Annie Murphy Paul

The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain

4.8 (993 ratings)
35 mins
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    The Extended Mind
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    Our bodies store subconscious knowledge, and by tuning into our sensations, we can tap into this intelligence.

    Imagine a Wall Street trading floor full of people, swarming around like bees in a field of monitors, frantically shouting sales orders into multiple telephones. It’s loud and intense. It’s a challenging environment for a human brain.

    In the middle of this mayhem is a man named John Coates. He’s been a trader for many years, and during this time he’s noticed something: the traders raking in the most cash don’t seem to be the analysis hounds or the data crunchers. The best traders aren’t the ones with the best educations or even the best ideas. The most successful traders seem to be the ones who know how, in key moments, to listen to their gut.

    Coates, who came to Wall Street with a PhD in mathematics from Cambridge – and who definitely knows a thing or two about data crunching and complex data analysis – has noticed the same thing with his own trades. Often, what on paper seems like a perfect trade – well-reasoned, logically solid and perfectly executed – fails miserably. It doesn't make any sense. At other times – and this is even stranger – he will have a sudden feeling, a momentary glitch in his consciousness, showing him – in his own somewhat mystical words – “another path into the future.” When he follows this gut feeling, sometimes even against his better judgement, he’s often rewarded. It’s as if his body is somehow one step ahead of him, and all he needs to do is to listen.

    Eventually, Coates became so fascinated by this phenomenon that he decided to leave Wall Street and return to Cambridge to become a physiologist and neuroscientist. Since then, he’s done research that suggests that his observation on the Wall Street trading floor was correct – that being in tune with your own body can make you smarter.

    Here’s the science in a nutshell: Our senses are always active and they take in an ocean of data that never enters our consciousness. But that doesn’t mean this data is lost. It’s not. It’s processed subconsciously by our brain. And when our subconscious mind notices patterns in this data, our body alerts us through sensations generated in our organs, bones, and muscles. If we’re attuned to these signals, recognizing such a pattern around us might come with a slight speeding of the heart, or a twitch in the stomach. 

    This physical, subconscious process is called embodied cognition, and our receptivity to it is called interoception.

    In 2016, Coates found that traders’ success closely correlated with their ability to accurately detect the beats of their own hearts. In other words, traders with greater sensitivity to signals coming from their own bodies made more money than their less sensitive colleagues. On the trading floor, where opportunities vanish in a split second, access to this embodied cognition gave them an edge. 

    Interoception isn’t just valuable when trading stocks though. It can give you an edge in a lot of areas. And here’s the good news: it’s a skill that you can easily practice and become better at. One simple and surprisingly effective way to do so is through an exercise called a mindfulness body scan

    The idea is simple. You sit down somewhere quiet, close your eyes and take a few deep breaths. Then you slowly move your awareness over your body, focusing on one body part at a time, all the way from your toes to the top of your head, noticing any sensations or feelings along the way. At the end of these blinks, as a little bonus, you’ll find a guided mindfulness body scan, in case you’d like to try it out.

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    What is The Extended Mind about?

    The Extended Mind (2021) is an exploration of the power of thinking outside the confines of your brain. It shows that the path to greater intelligence is not locked within your skull. Rather, it's a path through your body, your environment and your relationships with others. 

    Who should read The Extended Mind?

    • People interested in the interaction of the body, brain and environment
    • Anyone interested in designing better spaces for creativity and teamwork
    • Anyone who’d like to optimize their working and learning relationships

    About the Author

    Annie Murphy Paul is an acclaimed science writer and frequent contributor to The New York Times Magazine and Scientific American. She’s the author of Origins and The Cult of Personality. Her Ted Talk on the nature of intelligence has been viewed 2.6 million times. 

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