Annie Murphy explores an entirely new concept of thought - to think outside the brain. Annie claims that there are external resources which we can utilize to build an extended mind. How can we use the host of 'extra-neural' resources that exi...
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Srini: Welcome to the unmistakable Creative. Thanks so much for taking the time to join us. Hey,
Annie Murphy Paul: I'm really glad to be here. Thanks for inviting me.
Srini: It is my pleasure to have you here.
Srini: So I actually found out about your work when I came across your book, the extended mind. And it was funny because I didn't quite know what I was getting myself into as somebody who's really into sort of, becoming more productive, taking better notes. I thought, oh, this is going to be all about, brain power.
Srini: And then, I got through the book and realized that you had taken something that I had thought was incredibly abstract and made it very concrete. All of which. Into, but before we do that in a lot of ways I see you as a social scientist. So I thought it was supposed to me.
Srini: What social group were you a part of in high school? And what impact did that end up having on the choices that you've made throughout your life and your career?
Annie Murphy Paul: I went to a distinctive kind of high school. It was an all-girls. School that I think in an earlier incarnation, it had been more or less a finishing school for like rich mainline debutantes main.
Annie Murphy Paul: The main line is a affluent neighborhood outside of Philadelphia. And it still had traces of that when I was there in the the eighties and nineties. And I let's just say that was not me. I was not comfortable on the lacrosse field or the hockey field or or in a. Ball or anything like that?
Annie Murphy Paul: I was bookish. I was, a kind of budding intellectual and. I found my tight circle of friends who were like that too, but it was really, we were definitely in the minority. And so it wasn't really, until I got to college that I felt like, okay, these are my people. We can talk about ideas. We don't have to.
Annie Murphy Paul: Mary, the boy from the boys school, there literally was a poodle and lots of my classmates, ended up marrying guys from Haverford. And that was not my destiny, thankfully well,
Srini: in an environment like that. What did you learn about. How people define success, people's values when it comes down, comes to money and wealth, because I think that you do all I know about an environment like that is what I've seen on television with TV shows like gossip girl.
Srini: I know that we had any duke here who also went to a very similar type of school when she was in high school. But only because her dad happened to be either a principal or a teacher there, not because she came from, significant amounts of
Annie Murphy Paul: wealth. Huh. Yeah. And I didn't either my parents were middle-class at best, but had dreams of I don't know, vaulting me and my sister into another kind of social world.
Annie Murphy Paul: And it worked in the sense that I got a fantastic education at the school because I was one of only a few students who actually cared about the schoolwork. So I had almost like mentoring relationships with a lot of my teachers and felt a lot more. A lot more kinship with my teachers than I did with a lot of my classmates.
Annie Murphy Paul: But I would say that being educated in an environment like that, it showed me how different people's values can be. It's so easy when you surround yourself with people who are like yourself, which we all tend to do to imagine that the whole world is like that. And, I had many experiences to show me that wasn't the case, but I do think that experience of growing up.
Annie Murphy Paul: Going to that school, which I attended for 12 years. So it was a very big chunk of my growing up. One thing it really instilled in me and it's, this has been a theme that runs throughout everything I've written is the importance of situation, the importance of context on behavior. And I, it's never made sense to me.
Annie Murphy Paul: We have some kind of fixed innate personality or intelligence because I felt myself to be so different. When I was with my friends, the ones that, the one I mentioned, the one, the ones I mentioned too, where, you know, more Similar to me or say with, at home with my family, I felt so different in those settings than I did in the larger school setting that was really so alien to me and so alienating.
Annie Murphy Paul: I've always had a real appreciation for the role of context and. Situation and people's behavior and in a way that's what the extended mind is all about too. It's all about how the space we're in the state of our body, the the kinds of relationships that we're engaging in, how all those things affect the way we think.
Annie Murphy Paul: And so to imagine that we have some kind of thick. Lump of intelligence that, can be evaluated and measured and ranked, and it's always the same and it always functions the same, no matter where we are or how we're feeling. I just think that's that's deeply misconceived.
Srini: It's funny because context is something that I've spent a lot of time thinking about this past year.
Srini: One of my mentors said you don't re, he said, you don't know your audience. And I remember where that became apparent to me is when, one of our students showed up for one of our mastermind calls with a baby in tow. And I realized I'm giving advice on how to be productive based on, being a 40 year old single male.
Srini: She's got two infants. So my advice is effectively nonsense. At this point and it made, been realized. I was like, wow, I have not. I overlooked the context of the advice that I was giving. And I realized that was actually very common. So there are two things I wonder about why do you think it is that people.
Srini: Overlook context when it comes to prescriptive advice. The example I was thinking of this morning is, all these authors who basically started putting the effort in the title of their book after mark Batson's book, publishers have lost their damn minds there's context there. That matters.
Srini: Mark is a really good writer. So there was that, but then, also in terms of prescriptive advice yeah. When people read a self-help book where they take an online course, they completely overlook context. They think, oh, I'm just going to do this, what this person did and I'm going to get the same results.
Srini: And it's no. You're like, I grew up the son of a college professor. That's a pretty different context than somebody who grows up. Like getting shot at, in the hood
Annie Murphy Paul: yeah. It seems to be a pretty universal cognitive bias that we, although I will say it's much stronger in Western societies than in, it appears to be stronger in Western societies than an Asian cultures or Eastern cultures.
Annie Murphy Paul: But the cognitive bias is to focus on the individual and to attribute to the individual. All these innate inherent characteristics, th the psychologists Lee Ross called it, the fundamental attribution error, it is fundamental. It's like at the root of of all of our thinking, we tend to attribute.
Annie Murphy Paul: Fixed characteristics to other people. But interestingly we often bring in situational context when we think about ourselves, because we know that we acted that way because we were in a grumpy mood that day or. We didn't do so well on that test. Not because we're not intelligent, but because we were nervous or something like that.
Annie Murphy Paul: So we have access to our own insights, and that leads us to bring in more context more of a cinch, situational influence than when we look at other people and their behavior from the outside. And yet still, I think we have. This persistent bias to overlook the role of context and background and environment and situation, even when it comes to ourselves.
Annie Murphy Paul: And that was something I addressed in my very first book, which was called the cult of personality. It was about personality testing. It was a cultural critique and scientific Scientific critique and cultural history of personality testing. I did find I D I did and do find personality tests. So fascinating because not only because they're used by organizations to put people into boxes, which I find offensive.
Annie Murphy Paul: But also, and this always flummoxed me. People want to be put into boxes and in some sense, and look, go out of their way to take these tests and to really take their findings to heart. So I think there's a real, really strong drive. I heard from so many. Fans of the Myers-Briggs after I wrote that book, but people who said it had changed their lives and all the rest.
Annie Murphy Paul: So I think we really have a kind of built in bias. It seems to want to attribute fixed qualities to ourselves and others. And I think that's because it's cognitively easier to process than always taking the situation into account. And it's also emotionally more satisfying.
Srini: It's funny. You say that.
Srini: Cause the book that you and I were talking about before we hit record that life-changing science of detecting bullshit. One of the things that John Petrocelli talks about is the fact that most of these personality tests are in fact bullshit. He said, and then Vanessa van Edwards, who studies people for a living, she said almost all of these have no actual.
Srini: Real, systematic, like proper scientific method research backing. Which is amazing. And people make huge, massive decisions, which that sort of follows up as a natural segue to that. The other part of context. So this is something I saw in the corporate world where I just did not thrive where, this is something I think, where people overlook context is with performance improvement plans.
Srini: One of the things that happens. If you're somebody like me who's been fired from every job you had is you get put on a performance improvement plan, but nobody ever thinks about whether you're in that bright job in the first place, which is a huge mismatch of talent and environment, which is overlooking context.
Srini: And I always said, as like performance improvement plans, don't improve performance. They prevent wrongful termination lawsuits. And so why is that? Like, why is it that, in the context of an organization where somebody sucks at a job, nobody thinks to say, oh, maybe we put this person in the wrong role.
Srini: We should find something that they might actually be
Annie Murphy Paul: at. It does seem to be, there's such an enormous vote. And the corporate world on hiring and finding the right person instead of creating the right situation for that person to thrive in. And I really came away from the research that I did on the extended mind, thinking that we need to rethink the role of leaders and managers.
Annie Murphy Paul: We need to think of. Not as people managers. Exactly. But as situation creators, they need to yes. Find the right people, but then put at least as much effort into creating environments in which those people can think well and and thrive emotionally. And I think that piece gets left out.
Srini: Before we get into the book what was the narrative around careers?
Srini: I, when you're growing up with your parents and then what is it that, puts you down this trajectory to where you ended up writing this book and the previous one?
Annie Murphy Paul: Oh, interesting. I was a very self-driven child and my parents were pretty laid back and they had. Hopes and dreams for my sister and me, for sure, but not in a directive way.
Annie Murphy Paul: It was whatever you want to do, we'll support you. So that's, that was nice. But I was I've actually becoming been, I've actually become less ambitious in a sense over time, I was very driven as a young person and I was very determined to succeed in a kind of convention. Way.
Annie Murphy Paul: And as over time and as life has unfolded, I think I've become. More ambitious for my life as a whole and less ambitious for certain in terms of meeting certain career milestones. And I think you also, as you get older, you learn about yourself, you learn how you work best. I actually, I like you have not necessarily thrived inside organizations.
Annie Murphy Paul: And so I've worked for myself for many years now. And That works for me. And so does a certain kind of reflect reflective kind of pace. I hate being really busy and I'm still wrestling with what, with whether one can be productive without being hyper busy, and I don't have an answer for that yet, but I know that when I'm hyper busy, I'm miserable.
Annie Murphy Paul: So that's not an option.
Srini: Yeah. What in the world led you down this trajectory? Because like almost every single person that I interviewed, this doesn't seem like a sort of linear path that is presented to you by a high school guidance counselors that says, Hey, this is what you should go do.
Annie Murphy Paul: No, I had this vague idea that I wanted to be a writer, but who knows what that even means? It took me a while to find my way to writing. To the things I write about, which are, which is social science, which is the science of human behavior. It's not, actually I was going to say it, it wasn't that one winding of a path.
Annie Murphy Paul: My first job was writing for my colleges magazine and that's when I started interviewing professors and researchers and realizing that I love. That kind of ideas, journalism. And then my second job was at psychology today where I kind of magazine where I refined that further to realize that I really loved writing about the science, social science and the science of human behavior.
Annie Murphy Paul: And it was not long after that, that I went freelance. So I've been a magazine writer and a book author since then. It was a somewhat direct path, but the path that this book took was definitely very winding. I had set out to write a book specifically about the science of learning, which was something I had become really interested in when my two children started school and this was now probably a decade ago.
Annie Murphy Paul: And I ended up. I tried. I tried for many years to write a book about the science of learning, but the problem there was that I couldn't find a big idea that pulled together all the disparate pieces of research that I was uncovering in the science of learning. And I really need a big idea to get excited about a project.
Annie Murphy Paul: And so it wasn't until I landed on the theory of the extended mind, which is, was proposed. By two philosophers. It is not my idea. It's an idea that I borrowed from Andy Clark and David Chalmers. But it wasn't until I read their article, which was written in 1998 on the introducing the theory of the extended mind that I really realized that okay, this is what the book will be about.
Annie Murphy Paul: Or this is what is, this is the big idea that will organize all this research that I've been collecting.
Srini: Yeah. So before we ended the book, one last question you're as a parent who was interested in the education and the science of it, but with two children, who've not been in school for 10 years.
Srini: Given the background that you have, if you were tasked with changing how our education system for the better, what would you like? What would you redesign
Annie Murphy Paul: that I'd love to redesign schools from top to bottom along the principle of. Children are not just their brains. Children have bodies, children are embedded.
Annie Murphy Paul: Like we, all, our children are embedded in physical spaces and children are part of networks of relationships and communities. So an education that would embrace all of those things rather than trying to suppress them or keep them out of the classroom as is often the case. Now that would be my ideal of an educator.
Srini: I think that makes a perfect segue to getting into the concepts in the extended mind. I think that, one of the things that is really was so striking to me about the book was this idea of, the body and the mind working together. And one of the things you opened the book by saying is that the failure of our technology to consistently enhance our intelligence has to do with the metaphor we encountered earlier in this introduction, the computer as a brain too often, those who designed today's computers and smartphones have gotten that users inhabit biological bodies, occupy physical spaces and interact.
Srini: Other human beings, technology itself is brain bound, but by the same token technology itself could be extended broadened to include external resources that do so much to enrich the thinking we do in the offline world. And that struck me so much because I'm a person who literally spends the entire day building systems, to take better notes are all based on this concept.
Srini: That my friend, Tiago Ford Dicamba with called building a second brain, but there's so little. Talk about this and you were building apps, we're building tools, productivity tools, distraction, blockers. Why is this not a more prevalent narrative? And like why are we in this sort of trap that we're in of thinking technology is the answer to
Annie Murphy Paul: everything.
Annie Murphy Paul: Yeah. I would trace it back. You could trace it back to two points in history. I think if you wanted to go way back, you could look. How old and entrenched this idea is, going back to Rene Descartes. And before that mind and body are separate and mind is elevated above the body. Mind is this pure crystalline sphere where we use our intellect and body.
Annie Murphy Paul: Is this grubby animal like irrational ungovernable. Creature that we, that has nothing to do with intelligent thinking. So that's a very old and entrenched idea in our culture. And then it, that same idea reached its fullest flower, maybe during the cognitive revolution of the 20th century, when.
Annie Murphy Paul: Human beings created computers, invented computers, and then looked to computers and said, Hey, our brains are like that. It's really weird. It's like we identified our brains with this thing that our brains had created, but this P this metaphor of brain is computer became incredibly powerful, incredibly pervasive.
Annie Murphy Paul: And it, it really, once you start noticing it, you notice that. It's embedded in so much of the way that we talk about ourselves and our brains, but computers don't have bodies, computers operate the same way. Whether no matter where they're located and computers don't have friends or relationships.
Annie Murphy Paul: The way we think about the brain became limited to this incredibly narrow kind of intelligence that's exhibited by computers. But that cuts out that leaves out really the wellsprings of human intelligence and that's that's been a really, I think, a really tragic over.
Srini: Yeah. So how do we get back to that?
Srini: Because one of the first concepts, and this is where, I was telling you, my roommate has this business called body brain based breakthrough. The minute I read this, suddenly everything he did made a lot more sense to me. You said that interoception is simply stated an awareness of the interstate of the body, just as we have sensors that take in information from the outside world retinas cochleas tastebuds olfactory bulbs.
Srini: We have sensors inside our bodies that send our. A constant flow of data from within. And it was funny because when I read that, I started to suddenly see numerous sort of light bulb went off in my head. I was like, oh, no wonder I get my best ideas when I'm surfing or snowboarding, because I'm getting that idea.
Srini: Those ideas are coming, not just from my brain before my body. And then of course you have, all this stuff, Steven Kotler writes about when it comes to flow. Cause those are, really high flow activities.
Annie Murphy Paul: And I wonder if in moments like that, you really like. To be attuned to your body to make the things happen that you want to have happen when you're surfing or when you're snowboarding, you're really tuned in and at one with your body.
Annie Murphy Paul: And I wonder if you're receiving its messages or it's the information that the body contains in a way that you're not, when you're sitting at your door.
Srini: Yeah. So how do we begin to cultivate what you call interoceptive awareness and, get access to this? What you say, otherwise accessible inaccessible information.
Annie Murphy Paul: Yeah. There's a couple of techniques that have been proven scientifically to increase interoceptive attunement. One of them. A technique borrowed from mindfulness meditation called the body scan, which is really just paying, bringing open-minded curious, nonjudgmental attention to whatever is arising, whatever sensations are arising within your body at that moment.
Annie Murphy Paul: And when you S when you do that, and especially when you make that a regular practice, You start to realize that there's this constant flow of sensations from within that's there all the time. It's present all the time. And yet we're so used to ignoring it or even actively pushing it away in the course of a busy day.
Annie Murphy Paul: And so I've have made it a habit now to not even do a formal body scan, but just to. Check in with the internal state of my body, the internal world and not to always be constantly focused on the external world, which is very easy for us to do in our busy.
Srini: Yeah. So one of the things that you talk about also is this whole idea of physical activity.
Srini: And I think that this really struck me because to your point, you say our cultural conditions, us to see mind and body separate and so separate in turn that, we have our periods of thinking basically come from bouts of exercise and considering how many. You have to take our, make our visits to the gym only after work, for example, or on weekends.
Srini: And you say we should be figuring out how to incorporate versa physical activity into the Workday and school day, which means rethinking how we approach our breaks. And it's funny because literally I remember the morning I read that I was like, okay, you know what, for once I'm not just going to sit here and try to power through the morning, I'll just go for a walk.
Annie Murphy Paul: Good. I'm glad you were moved to to try that out. How did it.
Srini: Oh, I came back with you suddenly. I had all these thoughts that like access to suddenly just an abundance of creative ideas that I hadn't really thought to really think about prior.
Annie Murphy Paul: Yeah. And I think that's a myth of productivity that if you really want to get something done, you just have to sit there, and work your brain until it until the task is complete and accurate.
Annie Murphy Paul: That's really counter productive. And I think it taps into a second common metaphor for the brain, which is the brain as muscle, with the growth mindset and with the idea of grit, we've been encouraged to think of the brain as a muscle that gets stronger. The more you exercise it. But I, again, I think that's a pretty limiting analogy for the brain.
Annie Murphy Paul: It's the brain actually is it's limited in its And its capacity to do a lot, to do a lot of the things that we ask of it these days. And it needs help from the outside. It's not going to be sufficient just to build it up from the inside, so to speak.
Srini: Yeah this is another one that really struck me.
Srini: And I think probably this is common for almost everybody listening to this, myself included. So there's one more erroneous assumption about breaks to address. We imagine that we're punishing the brain's depleted resources. When we spend our breaks doing something that feels different from work scrolling through Twitter, checking the news, looking at Facebook.
Srini: The problem is that such activities engaged the same brain regions and draw down the same mental capital. We used to do our cog cognition, centric jobs. And so that made me wonder. Walks in general. And this is something that I've toyed with. So for me, like despite hosting a podcast, I actually don't listen to podcasts.
Srini: I prefer reading books and the only time I ever do listen to them is when I'm going for a walk. And I've always wondered if I'm like, not getting the benefits of the walk because I'm still taking in information.
Annie Murphy Paul: That could be, I think. Most of us take our walks outside. So there's actually two things going on here.
Annie Murphy Paul: There's the physical activity and there's the experience of being in nature. And so you're getting some of the benefits of both of those things, but There is research that suggests that the benefits of a walk-in nature are not as great if we take our our devices with us, you might want to try going for some walks, where you're just letting your mind run free and see what happen.
Srini: So let's talk about this whole idea of movement being connected to our ability to remember and learn, because, you say that information is better remembered when we're moving, as we learn it and that it can help us to remember where accurately, can you expand on that and explain like, why that is and how we incorporate it.
Srini: For example, let's say I wanted to, after our conversation, remember as much as I could from this conversation.
Annie Murphy Paul: Yeah the way memory works is not how anyone would have designed it. And that's because it wasn't designed, it's a product of evolution. And so the way we remember things is is a product or a function.
Annie Murphy Paul: Of how deeply we've processed the meaning of of what, of, what of the material that we're trying to remember. That's why a student can't just read a textbook and instruct herself, remember this. It actually is the brain treats as a signal to remember something, the value of remembering something.
Annie Murphy Paul: If it's been deeply processed because that's. And if it's been repeatedly encountered, because those are signals that this material is going to be useful and is worth expanding the mental energy to remember. So the more cues and the more Signals we can associate with a piece of information.
Annie Murphy Paul: The more likely it is that we'll remember that a piece of information. That's why when we pair a piece of information with with a gesture, for example, like when we're learning a foreign language or when we act out what we're trying to understand, or remember rather than. Thinking about it, again, that, that mode of sitting still and thinking that gives our brains, that kind of another hook to sink into that piece of information.
Annie Murphy Paul: And then later when we're trying to remember. It gives us another way to reel in that information. Gesturing, acting things out also this help us remember specific pieces of information and also physical activity, like about a physical activity just before we try to learn something tends to sharpen our cognitive abilities, such that we'll remember that information better later, if we've exercised just before learning.
Srini: Okay. I remember the chapters on gesture struck me with this line in particular as somebody who does creative work was really one of those things that I thought, man, people really need to do this more often. You say privacy supports creativity and out of the way, it offers us the freedom to experience.
Srini: Unobserved when our work is a performance put on for the benefit of others, we're less likely to try new approaches that might fail or look messy. And it's funny because I always tell people, it's I'm an average writer who writes a lot, and it's the only reason I ever write anything worth reading that most of that work is done with nobody watching.
Srini: And I think a lot of creative people have this sort of, internal narrative that gets in their way, this sort of inner critic where even when they're working in private, It gets in their way to not do what exactly what you're doing and reap the benefits of what you're talking about here.
Annie Murphy Paul: Interesting. That w the passage you just read from the book was from a chapter about how built spaces can support intelligent thinking. And that was, this is really been a hot topic lately, because we're all thinking are those of us. Work in offices, there's a lot of talk and a lot of thinking about what our office is going to look like when an F people return to them.
Annie Murphy Paul: And part of what we know from research about what kinds of spaces Our congenial for, in terms of encouraging, intelligent thought, have to do with privacy and protect, protecting ourselves from distraction for one thing, which the open office is very bad at. And also give as you were saying giving us some privacy.
Annie Murphy Paul: In terms of being able to experiment without anyone watching. But I liked the connection you just made now that for many of us creative types the the surveillance follows us into a private space because it's really within our own mind. And there's, there's a bunch of ways we can relax that, that overseer.
Annie Murphy Paul: And interestingly, just to go back for a minute, one is very intense exercise. It turns out that very intense exercise tends to dial down the prefrontal cortex, which is that part of the brain that judges and analyzes and criticizes and very intense exercise can. Dial that down in a way that scientists compare to a drug trip or drink or dreaming a dream state where ideas can flow and mingle more, more easily.
Annie Murphy Paul: So that might be one way to get out from under that internal Judd.
Srini: Yeah. So what are the other things that you talked about that struck me and it explained why I was really Beto, adamant that I don't work in coffee shops. It's this whole idea of like external monitors. I hate writing on my laptop.
Srini: I that's why I do almost all my work at my desk. And your research suddenly made that much more concrete. Oh, okay. So what is going on there? Why is it that when we have these sort of bigger monitors external monitors connected that we're able to, I know you've talked about the fact that we can take in more and connect with connections.
Annie Murphy Paul: going on there. Interesting. So you like working in your own office because you're working at a computer with a large screen rather than a small laptop. Okay. Got it. Because I'm part of the problem with reading in a coffee shop might also be that you're aware of other people being around.
Annie Murphy Paul: And that takes up some measure of mental bandwidth. That is, is preserved when you're in your own space. But yeah, going back to that question of the bigger screen, there's some fascinating research that says. That the way our brains deal with abstract information and ideas, the way they deal with it best is by or the brain treats ideas and concepts as as space as mental space, that's what we evolved to do.
Annie Murphy Paul: That's what we still do best. We still think in terms of physical space, even when we're dealing with digital content. Our abilities to use those kinds of embodied resources of physical navigation and spatial memory. Those are limited when we have a really small screen, but when we have a big screen we can start moving physically moving our bodies.
Annie Murphy Paul: We can start employing that spatial memory where things are in a fixed location. And you remember, oh, this is over here and this is over there. In a way that is very hard to do on a small screen where you're always clicking through different windows and nothing stays fixed in its location. Basically when we have a big screen, we can bring all these embodied resources that remain dormant when we're when we're either keeping ideas inside our heads or when we're relating to a very small screen.
Srini: Yeah it's funny. That makes sense as to why, like almost all the best writers I know. All right. With physical notebooks first. And I like, I'm always baffled by people who can write on a phone. I can, I'm probably too old to do that. Like I'm 43. So for me, I'm not one of these millennials who can text as fast as many of them do just wow, that's not even possible for me.
Srini: So there are three things you mentioned later in the book what you call embodied cognition, situated cognition, and distributed cocktails. Can you explain what those are and how they play a role in our lives? Sure.
Annie Murphy Paul: Yeah, the, and those form, the sort of three sections of the book, the first is embodied cognition.
Annie Murphy Paul: The idea that the body plays an integral role in our in our thinking processes. Situ situated cognition is the idea that where we are affects the way we think and distributed cognition refers to the fact that thinking happens among people and spread across different minds. And not just within one mind the one mind of an individual.
Srini: Yeah. Let's do this. Let's get into the part. I think that really struck me and ended up making, Just really influenced the way I thought about your work was this entire idea of externalization because you may be familiar with it in the last probably year or so. It's become the talk of the town when it comes to knowledge management, which is sancha, Aaron's book how to take smart notes.
Srini: He talked about Nicholas lumen who was a social scientist who something like 80 years ago created this system called the Zelle Caston and ended up finishing a PhD thesis in a year, brought 58 books and published 500 papers. And I'm like, wait a minute. My dad's a professor. And for anybody to do that, they had to have done something really weird.
Srini: But when I connected the dots between that and your work, it made a lot of sense because you talk extensively about the benefits of externalizing knowledge. And the value of doing that. And I saw it firsthand in my own experience when I did that and combine the two. So can you talk about, what are the benefits of externalizing knowledge and then how do we utilize that?
Annie Murphy Paul: Yeah. That's really interesting what you say about this note taking system. Cause it sounds like it draws on this this truism that, and this that's been supported by research that basically when we. Ideas and information inside our heads. We're limited in what we can do with them in ways that open up when we get that stuff out of our head and onto physical space, when we engage in cognitive offloading.
Annie Murphy Paul: So once. As I say, get the contents of our minds out onto space. We can relate to them differently. Psychologists talk about the detachment benefit, which is it like we're putting space between ourselves and our thoughts in a way that allows us to look at them in new and Interact with them in ways that wouldn't be possible.
Annie Murphy Paul: If they remained in our heads, we can once we've cognitively offloaded, we can treat ideas and information as material objects that we physically manipulate and move around, I'm picturing like, Ideas on post-it notes that we actually can move around in space. And we can engage in this navigational activity that I was talking about before we can physically navigate through the landscape of ideas and information and all those things.
Annie Murphy Paul: To think more intelligently than if the material stayed inside our heads. And yet we have this bias as a culture that smart people are geniuses. They do it in their heads. They they are able to. Engage in sort of mental calculations or mental manipulations when really not only is it more efficient and effective to offload that material onto the physical space and work with it out in the world, but that's actually what experts and masters of their craft.
Annie Murphy Paul: Do, it's a myth that smart people do it all in their heads. It's actually a characteristic of the. Expertise and mastery that people effectively cognitively often.
Srini: It's funny you say that because I don't know if you've ever read it. There was a book called presentation, Zen by Gar Reynolds, which I pretty much consider the Bible of, designing good presentations.
Srini: And he actually talks extensively about the fact that he doesn't do anything. On a computer until he lays out the story and he uses it to storyboard or presentation. And I remember see, there are two things in that book that struck me, that kind of, reinforced what you've said here.
Srini: One was he had a story where he worked at apple and he went into some product designers office for a meeting. And the guy had a Mac book R at iMac on his desk that hadn't been turned on in days. They S they basically talked over, like sketches. So one of the other things he did was he used post-it notes to plan out his presentations.
Srini: And I noticed that I did the same thing, and I did it for a book too. When I was writing my first book, I had post-it notes on the wall where, I had each, I think there was a one-color post-it note to mark each chapter and then others to mark the sections within the chapters. And it was amazing how much easier it was to move things around, see where they fit.
Srini: And now I remember why I had this idea to order those reusable post-it notes. It was because of your book.
Annie Murphy Paul: Good. I'm a big post-it note fan, man.
Srini: Yeah I'm amazed that people don't utilize this whole idea of a physical.
Annie Murphy Paul: Yeah. I think they might believe that it's actually a, that's too much of a hassle or that it's actually easier or faster just to do it in their head.
Annie Murphy Paul: And so that's why I'm so intrigued by this research on interactivity, which shows that people actually. Solve problems, not only more accurately and more effectively and more creatively when they do it out in the world, as opposed to in their heads, but actually faster. It's actually faster to solve a problem out in the world than to try to do it in your head.
Srini: So another idea that you've talked about that really struck me was this whole idea of imitation you say in filtering biology to economics, to psychology. To political science, people are discovering how valuable imitation can be as a way of learning new skills and making intelligent decisions.
Srini: And, it takes us back to the beginning of our conversation about why I think publishers have lost their damn minds by trying to put the effort in the title of every book, thinking they're going to have another mark Manson on their hands. So I get where you're. And it funny enough, takes us back to context, but how do you imitate in a way that leads to innovation without necessarily, trying to replicate the success of somebody else and assuming you're going to get the same results?
Annie Murphy Paul: that is the trick because while we do, I think we have a bias against imitation and our culture that you can see in this sort of worship of. Innovators and, and originality and being first often when you're trying to master a new skill, the most effective way to do that is to emulate someone who's already mastered it and learn it from the inside by imitating someone else.
Annie Murphy Paul: And in fact the Roman Education system for centuries was based on was based on imitation on emits on emulating the masters until you were able went until you'd reach. The student had reached a point where they were able to put their own twist or their own bring their own take to it.
Annie Murphy Paul: But then you're right. There is a lot of. The stupid imitation that goes on that it's just a mindless. And so really what is key to effective imitation or smart imitation is what psychologists called the correspondence problem, cracking the correspondence problem. And that means T looking at a solution that someone else has come on.
Annie Murphy Paul: And identifying what it is about that solution, breaking it down and figuring out what it is about that solution that would be good to borrow. And then I'm noticing and observing how the different circumstances of your own situation. Because of course, it's, you're not going to be able to just.
Annie Murphy Paul: Cut and paste somebody's solution to your own situation. It's going to it's going to have to be modified. And so the correspondence problem is about figuring out what corresponds here. What is the common element with this problem that I'm looking at over here and my own problem that I'm trying to solve, and what can I borrow from someone else's solution that will help me while still adapting and modifying that that borrowing so that it fits my, the particulars of my situation.
Srini: Yeah I, I want to finish with this final piece on what'd you call it a group mind, and you say that individual cognition is simply not sufficient to meet the challenges of a world in which information is so in abundance expertise is so specialized and issues are so complex in this of a single mind, laboring on its own.
Srini: Is that a distinct disadvantage in solving problems or generating new ideas, something beyond solar thinking is required. The generation of a state that is entirely natural to us as a species. And yet one that has come to seem quite strange and exotic the group mind.
Annie Murphy Paul: Yes. Yeah. This really struck me, especially as someone who's been a freelance writer for 20 years than has really worked in a very solitary way.
Annie Murphy Paul: Like I'm really fascinated by the group mind and why it can be so hard to achieve, even though, as I say, we evolved to think together to think in groups and yet. There's so much dissatisfaction and friction and difficulty that we have working in groups thinking together in groups. And, I have a theory about that, which is that we have developed all these practices and protocols that are suited to individual thinking, in our very individualistic culture.
Annie Murphy Paul: And then we import those into a group setting where they just don't work very well. And so I think we need to. Develop a whole new set of practices and protocols for thinking together in order for group work to be more satisfying, to be more effective, because we need to figure out how to do it, but right now we don't do it very well.
Srini: Yeah it to me in a lot of ways explains why I'm able to have the flow to the abundance of ideas I do, because I get to talk to people like you every day. So I have this sort of, massive group mind, just so wide ranging. As I said, that includes porn stars, drug dealers, bank robbers, authors and social scientists.
Srini: Like I always jokingly say, if you want to Rob a bank, become a porn star or run for president, I can tell you how we're introduced you to the people who can help.
Annie Murphy Paul: Yeah, maybe you've figured out the BA having the, how to have the best of both worlds. There's this idea from psychological research called intermittent Kalib collaboration, which refers to the.
Annie Murphy Paul: People who are thinking on their own all the time. They tend to come up with a few great ideas, but a lot of really bad ideas. Cause they're not, they're not running it by their colleagues and people who are in touch with their colleagues all the time tend to come up with a bunch of. Okay.
Annie Murphy Paul: But not great ideas because there's so much social pressure to come to a consensus around acceptable ideas that are acceptable to the whole group. So the way to get the best of both is to oscillate between being alone and being in touch with other people. And it seems like the way you've set up your own work-life you almost do that by default.
Srini: Yeah, it is. Like almost everything I write is the by-product of one of two things, a book that I've read or somebody that I've interviewed or much to my mother's dismay, some experience I've had with her.
Annie Murphy Paul: Oh, that's nice to know that moms like moms still matter. Yeah.
Srini: It's funny.
Srini: I always say the occupational hazard of being a writer is that everybody in your life is at risk of being turned into material in your
Annie Murphy Paul: work.
Srini: Yeah. Wow. This has been really fascinating. So I have one last question for you, which is how we finish all of our interviews at the unmistakable creative.
Srini: What do you think it is that makes somebody or something unmistakable?
Annie Murphy Paul: What is it that makes something unmistakable? That's the question. Yeah. That is very interesting. I would say. It's the stamp of authenticity that can only come from someone who really knows what they're about and really knows who they are at some kind of deep level and the product of the product that a person like that will generate from their own mind is going to have the unmistakable stamp of that individual.
Annie Murphy Paul: And. I think there's so much out there that is the product of conformity. That is the product of mindless imitation. And so when you come across something that really bears this stamp that I'm talking about of the unmistakable humanity of one, in, in this one particular instantiation of this individual, like it's precious.
Annie Murphy Paul: And I think it's really it's unmistakable. It's it's, when you see.
Srini: Amazing. I can't thank you enough for taking time to join us and share your story, wisdom and insights with our listeners. Where can people find out more about you, your work, the book, and everything that you're up to?
Annie Murphy Paul: Thanks. This has been a really fun conversation. People can find me at my website, which is www dot Annie Murphy, paul.com. And I'm also really active on Twitter. And I really love engaging with people there so people can find me on Twitter. It's at Annie Murphy, Paul
Srini: amazing hand for everybody listening, we will wrap the show with that.