Dec. 27, 2022

Best of 2022: Annie Murphy | The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain

Best of 2022: Annie Murphy | The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain

Annie Murphy Paul 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 exist around us? What possibilities does this present to us? Take a listen to find out.

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 exist around us? What possibilities does this present to us? Take a listen to find out.

Subscribe for ad-free interviews and bonus episodes


Hosted on Acast. See for more information.

Maximize Your Output With Mem 

The knowledge generation course for coaches, consultants, content creators, and small business owners who want to access and use their knowledge to create content, build a body of work, and grow their business. Enrollment for October Cohort is Now Open. 

Click Here to Learn More



Srini: Annie, welcome to Unmistakable Creative. Thanks so much for taking the time to chat.

Annie Murphy Paul: Mainly the Main Line is an affluent neighborhood outside of Philadelphia. And it still had traces of that when I was there in the eighties and nineties. And let's just say that was not me. I was not comfortable on the lacrosse field or the hockey field, or in a debutante ball, or anything like that.

Annie Murphy Paul: I was bookish. I was, you know, a kind of budding intellectual. And I found my tight circle of friends was 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.

Annie Murphy Paul: We don't have to. Mary, the boy from the boys' school, there literally was a bevy of boastful boys, and lots of my classmates, you know, ended up marrying guys from there. And that was not, that was not my destiny. Thankfully

Srini: You're in an environment like that. What did you learn about how people define success, you know, people's values when it comes to money and wealth I think that you do.

Srini: All I know about an environment like that is what I've seen on television with TV shows like Gossip Girl. I knew that we had [anyone] 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, you know, significant amounts of wealth.

Annie Murphy Paul: Yeah, and I, I didn't either, my, my parents were middle-class at best but had sort of dreams of I don't know, vaulting me and my sister into another kind of social world. 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.

Annie Murphy Paul: So I had almost like mentoring relationships with a lot of my teachers and felt a lot more kinship with my teachers than I did with a lot of my classmates. But I would say that being educated in an environment like that, showed me how different people's values can be. Do you know? 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.

Annie Murphy Paul: And, you know, I had many experiences to show me that that wasn’t the case, but I do think that experience of, of, of growing up, going to that school, which I attended for 12 years, was a very big chunk of my growing up. One thing it really instilled in me—and this has been a theme that runs throughout everything I’ve written—is the importance of the situation, and the importance of context on behavior.

Annie Murphy Paul: And it's never made sense to me that we have some kind of fixed innate personality or intelligence because. I felt myself to be so different. You know, when I was with my friends, the ones that, the one I mentioned, the ones I mentioned too, were, you know, more similar to me or say with, you know, at home with my family, I felt so different in those settings.

Annie Murphy Paul: Then I did in the larger school setting that was really so alien to me and so alienating. So 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 kinds of relationships that we're engaging in, and how all those things affect the way we think.

Annie Murphy Paul: And so to imagine that we have some kind of fixed lump of intelligence that, you know, can be evaluated and measured and ranked, and it's always the same and it always functions the same, no matter where we are, how we're feeling. I just think that's deeply misconceived. Yeah.

Srini: Well, so, you know, it's funny because context is something that I've spent a lot of time thinking about this past year and one of my mentors said, he said, "You don't know your audience."

Srini: And I remember where that became apparent to me is when, you know, one of our students showed up for one of our masterminds with a baby in tow. And I realized I'm giving advice on how to be productive based on, you know, being a 40-year-old single male, while she's got two infants. So my advice is effectively nonsense.

Srini: At this point, it made me realize, I was like, wow, I hadn't overlooked the context of the advice that I was giving. And I realized that that was actually very, very common. So there are two things I wonder about: why do you think it is that people overlook context when it comes to prescriptive advice?

Srini: You know, the example I was thinking of this morning is, you know, all these authors who basically started putting the effort in the title of their book after Mark Manson's book; publishers have lost their darn minds. I'm like, there's context there that matters. Mark is a good writer. And so there was that, but then, you know, also in terms of prescriptive advice, yeah.

Srini: When people read a self-help book or take an online course, they often completely overlook context. If you think, "Oh, I'm just going to do this, what this person did and I'm going to get the same results," it's like, "Well, no." I mean, you're like, "I grew up the son of a college professor. That's a pretty different context than somebody who grows up, you know, like getting shot at in the hood."

Annie Murphy Paul: Yeah, well, it seems to be a pretty universal cognitive bias that we, although I will say it's much stronger in Western societies than in, in it, it appears to be stronger in Western societies than in Asian cultures or Eastern cultures, but the cognitive bias is to focus on the individual and to attribute to the individual, all these innate inherent characteristics, you know, the psychologist Lee Ross called it, the fundamental attribution error.

Annie Murphy Paul: You know, it is fundamental. It's like at the root of all our thinking, we tend to attribute fixed characteristics to other people, but interestingly, we often bring in situational context when we think about ourselves, because we know, 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.

Annie Murphy Paul: Not because we're not intelligent, but because we were nervous or something like that. So we have access to our own insights, you know, and that leads us to bring in more context, more of a 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, background, 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 personality testing. It was a cultural critique and a scientific critique and a cultural history of personality testing. I do find personality tests so fascinating, not only because they are used by organizations to put people into boxes, which I think is often misguided, but also because they can tell us so much about ourselves and about how we interact with the world.

Annie Murphy Paul: Offensive, but also, and this always flummoxed me. People want to be put into boxes and in some sense, look, go out of their way to take these tests and to really take their findings to heart. I think there's a real, really strong drive. You know, I heard from so many people 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.

Annie Murphy Paul: Hear that? That's the sound of innovation, the sound of industry working hard to provide the goods and services we all rely on – from food and power to water, transport, and more. Find out how Vivva's industrial software is helping them to do all of that and use our world's resources

Annie Murphy Paul: A viva will take you there.

Srini: If you like the guests on Unmistakable Creative, there's another podcast that I think you'll really like with amazing guests, compelling stories, and thought-provoking insights that can really improve your life as a high school band geek. I love hearing Wynton Marsalis talk about his career and his love for music on the Stories of Impact podcast.

Srini: You'll hear about the intersection of science and spiritual practices that give life the deepest meaning and fulfillment. You'll hear conversations about the science behind innovative tools that help human beings grow and develop. And it's built on the belief that the birthright of every human being is not just to survive, but to thrive. Guests on the Stories of Impact podcast include Deepak Chopra, Winton Marcelis, and Laurie Santos, and they explore topics such as happiness and listening.

Srini: Find them wherever you get your podcasts supported by the Templeton World Charity Foundation. Yeah, it's funny you say that because in the book that you and I were talking about before we hit record, “The 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.

Srini: He said, and then Vanessa Van Edwards, who studies people for a living, she said almost all of these have no actual, real, systematic, proper scientific method research backing them, which is amazing. And people make huge, massive decisions, which does that sort of follow up as a natural segue to the other part of the context.

Srini: So this is something I saw in the corporate world where I just did not thrive. You know, one of the things that happen 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 the right job in the first place, which is a huge mismatch of talent and environment, which is overlook[ing] context.

Srini: And I always said, as with performance improvement plans, don't improve performance, prevent wrongful termination lawsuits. And why is that? Like, why is it that, in the context of an organization, when 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 good at.

Annie Murphy Paul: Yeah. Well, it does seem to be, there's such an enormous [emphasis]. And the corporate world is focused on hiring and finding the right person instead of creating the right situation for that person to thrive in. You know, 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 them, not as people managers. Exactly. But as situation creators, you know, they need to not only 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 a lot.

Annie Murphy Paul: Oh, hi everybody. I'm so glad to be here today!

Srini: Well, you know, before we get into the book, what was the narrative around careers when you were growing up with your parents? And then what is it that kind of put you down this trajectory to where you ended up writing this book?

Annie Murphy Paul: Oh, interesting. Well, I was a very self-driven child, and my parents were pretty laid-back. I mean, they had hopes and dreams for my sister and me, for sure, but not in a directive way; it was more like, "Whatever you want to do, we'll support you."

Annie Murphy Paul: So that's, that was nice. But I was you know, I've actually been becoming, 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 conventional way. 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 in terms of meeting certain career milestones.

Annie Murphy Paul: And I think you also, as you get older, you learn. You learn about yourself, you learn how you work best. You know, I, I actually, I like you have not necessarily thrived inside organizations. And so I've worked for myself for many years now. And that works for me. And so does a certain kind of reflective pace.

Annie Murphy Paul: I hate being really busy and I'm still wrestling with whether one can be productive without being hyper-busy, you know? And I don't have an answer for that yet, but I know that when I'm hyper-busy, I'm miserable. So that's not enough.

Srini: Yeah. Well, I mean, what in the world led you down this trajectory?

Srini: Because, like almost every single person I interviewed, this doesn't seem like a linear path that, you know, is presented by high school guidance counselors that say, "Hey, this is what you should go do."

Annie Murphy Paul: Oh, no, no. I mean, I kind of had this vague idea that I wanted to be a writer, but, who knows what that even means?

Annie Murphy Paul: You know? It took me a while to find my way to writing. The thing I write about is a social science, which is the science of human behavior. Well, it actually wasn't that winding of a path. My first job was writing for my college's magazine.

Annie Murphy Paul: And that's when I started interviewing professors and researchers and realizing that I loved that kind of journalism. And then my second job was at Psychology Today, a 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: So, and it wasn't long after that, that I went freelance. So I've been a magazine writer and a book author since then. So, 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. 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 needed 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 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 1990, introducing the theory of the extended mind, that I really realized, okay, this is what the book will be about.

Annie Murphy Paul: Or this is what it is, this is a big idea that will organize all the research that I've been collecting.

Srini: Yeah. Well, so before we end the book, one last question for you as a parent who was interested in, you know, sort of the education and the science of it, with two children who have been in school for 10 years, given the background that you have, if you were tasked with changing our education system for the better, what would you like?

Srini: What would you redesign about

Annie Murphy Paul: It? Oh, I'd love to redesign schools from top to bottom. Along with the principle that children are not just their brains. Children have bodies, and they are embedded. Like we all are, our children are embedded in physical spaces, and they are part of networks of relationships and communities.

Annie Murphy Paul: 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 idea of education.

Srini: Oh, well, I think that it makes a perfect segue to getting into the concepts in the extended mind. I think that you know, one of the things that are so striking to me about the book was this idea of, you know, sort of the body and the mind working together.

Srini: 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 forgotten that users inhabit biological bodies, occupy physical spaces, and interact.

Srini: For other human beings, technology itself is brain-bound, but by the same token, technology itself could be extended and broadened to include external resources that do so much to enrich the thinking we do in the offline world. And you know, that struck me so much because I'm a person who literally spends the entire day building systems, you know, to take better notes, all based on this concept.

Srini: You know that my friend Tiago Forte came up with called "Building a Second Brain". 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 why are we in this sort of trap that we're in of thinking technology is the answer to everything?

Annie Murphy Paul: Yeah. Yeah. Well, 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 at how old and entrenched this idea is, you know, going back to René Descartes. And before that, the mind and body are separate, and the mind is elevated above the body. Mind is this pure, crystalline sphere where we use our intellect, and body is this grubby, animal-like, irrational, ungovernable creature that we have nothing to do with intelligent thinking.

Annie Murphy Paul: So that's a very old and entrenched idea in our history. And then, and then it reached its fullest flower, maybe during the cognitive revolution of the 20th century. Human beings created computers, invented computers, and then looked at them and said, "Hey, our brains are like that. You know, it's really weird."

Annie Murphy Paul: It's like we identified our brains with this, this thing that our brains had created, but this, this metaphor of the brain as the computer became incredibly powerful, incredibly pervasive. And it, it really, once you start noticing it, you notice that it is embedded in so much of the way that we talk about ourselves and our brains, but you know, computers don't have bodies, computers operate the same way.

Annie Murphy Paul: No matter where they're located, computers don't have friends or relationships. So the way we think about the brain became limited to this incredibly narrow kind of intelligence exhibited by computers. But that cuts out, that leaves out really the wellspring of human intelligence and that's been, I think, a really tragic oversight.

Annie Murphy Paul: Yeah!

Srini: Well, so how do we get back to that? Because one of the first concepts and this is where, you know, I was telling you, my roommate has this business called a body-brain-based breakthrough. The minute I read this, suddenly everything he did make a lot more sense to me. You said that interoception is simply stated awareness of the internal state of the body.

Srini: Just as we have sensors that take in information from the outside world, retinas, cochleae, taste buds, all feedback loops. We have sensors inside our bodies that send our brains a constant flow of data from within. And it was funny because when I read that, I started to suddenly see numerous sort of, you know, the lightbulb went off in my head.

Srini: I was like, "Oh, no wonder I get my best ideas when I'm surfing or snowboarding because I'm getting that idea. Those ideas are coming not just from my brain, but from my body. And then of course you have, you know, sort of all this stuff Steven Kotler writes about when it comes to flow. 'Cause those are, you know, really, really high-flow activities.

Annie Murphy Paul: Right. And I wonder if, in moments like that, you really have to be attuned to your body to make the things happen that you want to have to happen when you're surfing or when you're snowboarding. You're really tuned in and at one with your body. And I wonder if you're receiving its messages or the information that the body contains in a way that you aren't when you're sitting at your desk.

Annie Murphy Paul: Yeah!

Srini: So how do we begin to sort of cultivate what you call interoceptive awareness and, you know, get access to this, you know what I say, otherwise inaccessible, information?

Annie Murphy Paul: Yeah, well, there's a couple of techniques that have been proven scientifically to increase interoceptive attunement.

Annie Murphy Paul: One of them is a technique borrowed from mindfulness meditation called the body scan, which is really just paying, bringing open-minded, curious, nonjudgmental attention to whatever sensations are arising within your body at that moment. And 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.