The mind in the web (and other stories)

Does the mind end with the brain? Or should the term also encompass the body and the tools we use to aid our thinking?

The idea of the “extended mind” was first proposed by the philosophers Andy Clark and David Chalmers in the late 1990s. As part of their argument, they propose a thought experiment concerning a man called Otto, with early Alzheimer’s, who carries a notebook in which he records important information throughout the day, so there is really no observable difference between his behaviour and someone with a healthy memory. In Clark and Chalmers’ view, the tool has simply become part of his mind. You could say the same about many of our other mental crutches – like our phone book or Google Maps – that have become so embedded in our day-to-day thinking. The extended mind may even reach to other people – in couples, we often rely on our partners to reinforce our memories, which is why a bereavement can feel like we’ve lost part of our own mind,

While that might seem like a rather abstract philosophical idea, I recently came across an intriguing paper suggesting that spiders‘ webs are an extended mind – with some interesting implications for evolutionary theory. According to recent research, spider silk is central to their sensing and memory – much like Otto’s notebook or my smartphone. They use the silk to sense their environment and have been known to “tune” it according to experience, for instance, which allows them to respond more quickly to prey. By outsourcing their “thinking” in this way, they are capable of much more complicated behaviours than you would expect from a typical invertebrate. Combined with other research showing that spiders can form mental representation of the world, and are even capable of expressing surprise, it now looks likely that spiders (and their webs) carry a rudimentary form of consciousness. You can read more in my recent feature article for New Scientist.

(Here’s a bonus fact: many spider species use tiny strands of silk to sense electromagnetic fields. When the force is strong enough to support their weight, they cast a few “sails” that allow them to fly thousands of miles across the ocean. Darwin’s The Beagle was apparently plagued by these flying spiders.)

Besides my piece on spider consciousness, I’ve been pleased to publish another piece in the Observer (the Guardian’s Sunday paper) on simple ways to boost your learning. I found that most articles about human memory tend to focus on mnemonic techniques – like Sherlock’s famous memory palace. But while that might be useful for learning isolated facts, it doesn’t really help you to build a profound understanding of a subject, or to be able to apply that learning to new situations in inventive ways. So I picked strategies from the scientific literature that have been proven to help any discipline.

As always, I’ve tried them all out myself – I try to practice what I preach with psychological research, so I can be sure they don’t fall into the “practicality gap” between lab research and everyday application. Since I’m splitting my time between London and Barcelona this year, I’ve tried to use them to boost my understanding of español. The benefits of wakeful rest – allowing your mind to wander aimlessly after a study session – has been a revelation. Interleaving – the practice of switching between topics/skills at regular intervals – has also been especially useful. You can read the article about learning and the “power of productive failure” here.

Here’s a simple maths question – the answer to which might tell you something important about your decision making skills. If you toss a coin 10 times, and the result is HHHHHHHHHH, what are the chances that it will be a tails on a the next throw? According to probability theory, the odds are exactly the same as before – 50%. But our intuitions often tell us this isn’t the case; somehow, a tails feels more likely. This is the gambler’s fallacy.


Perhaps most famously, it led punters at one of Monte Carlo’s casinos to lose millions of francs after a string of reds on the roulette wheel – but the implications stretch far beyond your typical games of chance. As I discuss in my new piece for BBC Worklife – the gambler’s fallacy can also sway stock market investments, judicial decisions, umpires’ calls and footballers’ penalty shootouts. Indeed, whenever you have to make a string of decisions, your intuitions about chance could be leading your astray.


You can read more here.

What I’m reading: I’ve just finished Grand Union by Zadie Smith (which I loved) and I’m now starting Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. For work, I’m also delving into a review copy of Cured by Jeff Rediger.

PS: If you read Swedish, I had a lovely conversation with Maria Jelmini for the Svenska Dagbladet – one of Sweden’s largest daily newspapers. The interview is here.

How to become a super-learner – whatever your IQ

When learning any new skill, most people in the West incorrectly assume that their current performance accurately reflects how much they will remember later. The better I perform now, the more I have learnt, and the better I will perform in the future. For this reason, we often look for ways to make our learning easier and more comfortable in the material we study and the ways we choose to practice.

Unfortunately, this is a “metacognitive illusion” and it impairs our memory in the long-term.

Whether you are trying to master a language, a sport, or a musical instrument, psychological research shows that your learning will benefit from so-called “desirable difficulties” and moments of confusion. Although they may momentarily impair your short-term performance, you will end up remembering much more in the future.

The reason is simple: the moment of struggle causes your brain to process the information more deeply, leading the brain to lay down a stronger memory trace that will remain with you, for longer. A wealth of experiments show that applying this simple principle could increase your recall by at least 50% in the weeks and months ahead.

In my new book, The Intelligence Trap, I describe many techniques that can help introduce desirable difficulties and productive struggle into your learning. Here are a few of my favourites:

Beware “fluent”, easy-to-process material. Superficially simple textbooks can lead you to believe that you are learning well, while, in fact, they are reducing your long-term recall. In fact, you will end up remembering more if you study more nuanced material. So don’t always look for the textbook with the nicest diagrams and easy-to-digest bullet points.

Give yourself a pre-test. As soon as you begin exploring a topic, force yourself to explain as much as you already know. Even if your initial understanding is abysmally wrong, experiments show that this prepares the mind for deeper learning later on.

Alternate the subjects or skills you are trying to learn. Most people intuitively prefer “blocked” study — to practice each skill for an extended period of time. That feels more rewarding than “interleaving” — the process of switching between the different topics or skills — which can create momentary confusion as your brain changes gears. Yet scientific studies in all kinds of disciplines show that interleaving is by far the more effective technique, precisely because it makes the initial learning experience a little bit more challenging. If you were studying maths you might switch between different kinds of algebraic problems, for instance. If you were practicing music, you might switch between scales or segments of the piece you are learning. In basketball, you might rotate the shots that you are trying to master.

Vary your environment. If you tend to study in the same place for too long, cues from that environment become associated with the material, meaning that they can act as non-conscious prompts. By altering the places of learning, you avoid becoming too reliant on those cues. In one experiment, simply switching rooms during studying resulted in 21% better recall on a subsequent test.

Test yourself regularly. So-called ‘retrieval practice’ has been shown to boost learning in many domains, since the act of testing forces more active and engaged thinking, which strengthens the memory trace of the material being recalled. So you should incorporate self-testing into every study session.

Learn by teaching. After studying — and without looking at your notes — imagine that you are explaining all that you have covered to another person. The act of explanation forces us to process the material more deeply.

While I was interviewing the psychologists Robert and Elizabeth Bjork, they told me that many people in the West are very resistent to these techniques — even after they have been told of the huge benefits — simply because they dislike the feelings of confusion. But there is now abundant evidence that they really are hugely effective at accelerating your overall learning. I’ve applied these myself while learning the Italian language, and I’ve found thatlittle bit of pain is well worth the long-term gains.

You can read more about their fascinating research, and the powerful ways that many East Asian schools have already adopted this strategy of “eating bitter” in my new book The Intelligence Trap: Why Smart People Make Stupid Mistakes and How to Make Wiser Decisions, available now in the UK and Commonwealth and to be published this summer in the USA.