Thinking outside the brain means skillfully engaging entities external to our heads - the feelings and movements of our bodies, the physical spaces in which we learn and work, and the minds of the other people around us—drawing them into our own mental processes. By reaching beyond the brain to recruit these 'extra-neural' resources, we are able to focus more intently, comprehend more deeply, and create more imaginatively—to entertain ideas that would be literally unthinkable by the brain alone. It’s true that we’re more accustomed to thinking about our bodies, our spaces, and our relationships. But we can also think with and through them - by using the movements of our hands to understand and express abstract concepts, for example, or by arranging our workspace in ways that promote idea generation, or by engaging in social practices like teaching and storytelling that lead to deeper understanding and more accurate memory. Rather than exhorting ourselves and others to use our heads, we should be applying extra-neural resources to the project of thinking outside the skull’s narrow circumference.
There is no corresponding cultivation of our ability to think outside the brain—no instruction, for instance, in how to tune in to the body’s internal signals, sensations that can profitably guide our choices and decisions. We’re not trained to use bodily movements and gestures to understand highly conceptual subjects like science and mathematics, or to come up with novel and original ideas. Schools don’t teach students how to restore their depleted attention with exposure to nature and the outdoors, or how to arrange their study spaces so that they extend intelligent thought. Teachers and managers don’t demonstrate how abstract ideas can be turned into physical objects that can be manipulated and transformed in order to achieve insights and solve problems. Employees aren’t shown how the social practices of imitation and vicarious learning can shortcut the process of acquiring expertise. Classroom groups and workplace teams aren’t coached in scientifically validated methods of increasing the collective intelligence of their members. Our ability to think outside the brain has been left almost entirely uneducated and undeveloped.
Entrenched historical foundations support these metaphors; they rest upon deep cultural underpinnings as well. The computer and muscle analogies fit neatly with our society’s emphasis on individualism—its insistence that we operate as autonomous, self-contained beings, in possession of capacities and competencies that are ours alone. These comparisons also readily conform to our culture’s penchant for thinking in terms of good, better, best. Scientist and author Stephen Jay Gould once included in his list of “the oldest issues and errors of our philosophical traditions” our persistent inclination “to order items by ranking them in a linear series of increasing worth.” Computers may be slow or fast, muscles may be weak or strong—and so it goes, we assume, with our own and others’ minds.