How can you help develop the inner workings of your child’s brain? According to a new book, you must “think outside” our culture’s normal associations with the brain.
In The Extended Mind: The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain, science writer Annie Murphy Paul declares the common metaphor of the brain-as-computer is flawed and limiting. “Our culture insists that the brain is the sole locus of thinking, a cordoned-off space where cognition happens, much as the workings of my laptop are sealed inside its aluminum case,” she writes. “This book argues otherwise.”
The book focuses on the problems such a “brainbound” perspective creates in modern schools and workplaces. But many of Murphy Paul’s well-researched insights have relevance for today’s parents, especially given our ever-increasing technological saturation. Indeed, technological devices often “isolate” both adults and growing children “from one another, sealing us within our individual digital bubbles,” she writes.
Benefits of eye contact, gestures, conversation
The key for parents is to think beyond the screen as much as possible when interacting with their children. Some of these strategies for “extending the brain” are instinctive, but Murphy Paul’s research often pinpoints the reasons that can help parents be more intentional.
For example, we know that from birth a baby starts tracking a parent’s eyes, and parents naturally return the gaze. But Murphy Paul explains the importance of eye contact is actually built into our eyes. “Such gaze-following is made easier by the fact that people have visible whites of the eyes,” she writes. “Humans are the only primates so outfitted, an exceptional status that has led scientists to propose the ‘cooperative eye hypothesis’ — the theory that our eyes evolved to support cooperative social interactions. ‘Our eyes see, but they are also meant to be seen,’ notes science writer Ker Than.”
Beyond eye contact, gestures are another bodily way to “extend” a young child’s brain development. Murphy Paul explains “linguists theorize that gesture was humankind’s earliest language … all of us, then, are effectively bilingual.” She notes that “well before babies can talk, they are waving, beckoning, holding up their arms in a wordless signal: pick me up.” Parents help “translate” the child’s gestures. Growing children, therefore, benefit from an environment rich in both words and gestures like pointing. Gestures can be especially helpful when a parent and child read a picture book together, which is essentially preparing the child’s brain to “read” the outside world as well.
As young children age, their brains and social skills benefit tremendously from as much face-to-face conversation as possible. The reason? “The body is the bridge,” Murphy Paul writes.
During conversations, “the body acts as a critical conduit, supplying the brain with the visceral information it lacks. … When interacting with other people, we subtly and unconsciously mimic their facial expressions, gestures, posture, and vocal pitch,” she writes. “Then … we perceive what the other person is feeling because we feel it in ourselves.” Think of how the lack of body language often impacts the quality of e-mail or of what Murphy Paul calls the “stutter-stop rhythm of asynchronous text exchanges.”
Role of exercise, motion, nature in brain development
Parents can also bodily “extend” a child’s brain development via frequent exercise and exposure to nature. Movement while learning new information can actually improve recall (hence we “never forget how to ride a bike”). Other ways to capitalize on this connection might be to encourage children to use their fingers when learning to count, act out stories they read, and write their thoughts in a journal. As Murphy Paul states, “whenever possible, we should offload information, externalize it, move it out of our heads and into the world.”
The value of exposure to nature in our increasingly digital (and urban) world cannot be overstated. In terms of brain development, Murphy Paul explains “children’s play is more imaginative when they are outdoors than when they are inside, research has shown; natural play spaces are less structured and more varied, and the props children may come across (leaves, pebbles, pinecones) have no purpose predetermined by teachers or parents.” Even if nature is hard to access, benefits can still result from home environments with natural light and growing plants.
On a larger scale, Murphy Paul notes the paradox of nature’s effect in our high-tech age. “The time we spend scrutinizing our small screens leads us to think small, even as it enlarges and aggrandizes our sense of self,” she writes. “Nature’s vastness — the unfathomable scale of the ocean, of the mountains, of the night sky — has the opposite effect. It makes us feel tiny, even as it opens wide our sense of the possible.”
In her conclusion, Murphy Paul returns to the pitfalls of the brain-as-computer metaphor. “We should resist the urge to shunt our thinking along the linear path appropriate to a computer — input, output, done — and instead allow it to take a more winding route,” she writes. Such a route would embed brain-extensions into our family life as much as possible.
Parents do some of this instinctively, but Murphy Paul’s book is a reminder that while today’s technology has many benefits, it also tends to limit brain development linked to our bodies, environments and relationships. In other words, we don’t want our growing children to just “use their heads,” but to “extend their minds” as well.