In Annie Murphy Paul’s recent discussion with interviewer Ezra Klein of her new book, “The Extended Mind,” Paul explains how outmoded models of the human mind as a computer are impairing our abilities to think creatively and maximize meaningful productivity and innovative thinking. Over the course of the discussion she leverages recent research from across disciplines to demonstrate how various technological, behavioral, and environmental interventions can have profound effects on our ability to generate creative ideas in ways that contradict prior assumptions about what enhances workplace and individual productivity.
Paul sees the common metaphor of the mind as a computer as inadequate in that computers work in a linear fashion - inputs are given, a series of computations are made that proceed in a preordained manner, and outputs are derived. According to that model, workplace productivity is simply a matter of “putting in the time,” spending a sufficient amount of effort in front of a computer screen processing and writing information until a given outcome is produced.
Paul rejects this metaphor by positing that our minds are best understood as operating within a series of social and environmental contexts, which can either be enhanced or inhibited by certain behavioral or technological interventions. Among the most fundamental of these, according to Paul, is the need to integrate movement into our routines; noting that the human mind evolved to process information while moving through space, all the while processing information both passively and intentionally. On a concrete level, she suggests that increasingly accepted changes in our work environment (for example the increasing utilization of standing desks) can have a profound impact on our ability to stay intellectually engaged in that they better reflect the environment in which our thinking processes evolved. Likewise, she notes strong evidence that behaviors that we traditionally think of as breaks from work - like going outside and taking a walk - are actually better thought of as opportunities to recontextualize intellectual dilemmas simply by changing the basic background context in which our thinking is occurring. This is true even where the question at issue isn’t being consciously considered, as it gives our unconscious mind an opportunity to approach the issue from novel angles.
As evidence of our natural tendency toward movement while taking in information, Paul cites the the common desire to stand, move, and gesture when taking a phone call. Although the other party cannot see us behaving in these ways, they approximate the ways that human beings socialize in natural settings, increasing our ability to actively engage with the intellectual material we receive by mimicking the social responses we would exhibit in traditional, face-to-face communication settings. This is why, according to Paul, ideas about open floor plans in work environments, meant to foster collaboration and efficiency, ultimately fail. By restricting our bodies natural tendency to fidget, gesticulate, rock in our chairs etc. based on generally accepted social norms of workstation productivity, Paul argues that open work environments actually reduce our ability to be productive. And when collaborations do happen within these environments, they are often distracting to other individuals in the workspace, further undermining group productivity.
Rather than prescribing a single intervention - for example her compelling suggestion of using behavioral “rituals” to induce creative mindsets - she suggests that human beings are most productive when they use what she terms a “magpie” approach. Magpie’s build their nests out of many different materials, each which serves a unique purpose in the nests construction. Likewise workers and offices are recommended to adopt a number of interventions, including opportunities for socializing and brainstorming in a group context, ideally while moving, along with opportunities for people to retreat to a more traditional, quiet productive space (i.e.an individual office) in order to maximize their productivity. Some of these interventions may be difficult to adopt in the Covid era - zoom meetings are doubtlessly less productive than unmasked discussions full of social cues and signals - but her ideas about a workplace in motion, with downtime for casual social interaction or flow activities, hold lessons for any environment.