Keynote addresses the science of how to get smarter

In the keynote for this year’s Celebrate Learning Week, Annie Murphy Paul explored the nature of intelligence. Paul refuted the idea that intelligence is determined by genetics or upbringing. Instead, she looked at the impact of the microenvironment—the context in which we use our minds at any given moment.

The keynote, titled “Brilliant: The Science of How to Get Smarter,” discussed ways the brain can work. Paul, who is an author, journalist, consultant, and speaker, suggested that the brain is too often portrayed as a “totem of power and potency.” The brain is limited in several areas, she explained, including working memory, attention and focus, logical reasoning abilities, motivation, and creativity.

“Far from being that omnipotent organ of supreme intelligence…the brain on its own is inept, inefficient, unreliable,” Paul stated. “The brain shouldn’t be able to do what it daily, demonstrably does.”

Despite this, Paul noted that humans are still remarkably intelligent. She explained that this is a result of the extended mind. The extended mind is the ability of the brain to utilize external resources. External resources can relieve the burden on working memory, focus and sustain attention, improve logical reasoning, enhance motivation, and increase creativity.

“The brain reaches out and pulls in external resources,” Paul stated. “It makes these resources a part of the thinking process. The brain borrows these resources from our bodies, from our tools, from other people, from the physical spaces and the human institutions and cultures in which we live in order to shore up its weaknesses and augment its strengths. This is how we get smarter. Not by using the brain, per se, but by thinking outside the brain.”

Paul focused on one of the five resources, the body, and its contribution to the extended mind.

According to Paul, one way our bodies can augment the brain’s strength is through gestures. Studies have found that gestures can reveal a lot about a person’s understanding, she explained. When what a person is verbally communicating does not match their physical gestures, it may indicate the person is in a transitional state—they are moving from one level of understanding to another.

“Gesture reveals what we know, but what our brain can’t put into words just yet. There’s always two conversations going on. The conversation with our words, and the sub rosa conversation we’re carrying on with our hands,” she stated.

Gestures can also prompt helpful behaviour from those around us. Paul cited Susan Goldin-Meadow, one of the leading researchers in non-verbal communication, specifically gestures. Goldin-Meadow found that when there was a mismatch between a child’s speech and their gestures, adults would spontaneously and unconsciously change their mode of instruction to help the child.

The act of gesturing can also accelerate learning by aiding in understanding new concepts. Paul cited a study by Susan Wagner Cook, where a class of third grade students were encouraged to gesture while learning algebra. It was found that those who gestured were more than three times more likely to remember what they learned than those who did not gesture. Paul pointed out that studies such as Cook’s demonstrate a departure from traditional views of learning. Rather than the idea that students should be stationary at their desks while learning, students may actually learn best when given the opportunity to be mobile.

Paul also discussed how gesturing can relieve working memory and help retrieve items from memory. In another study by Cook, college students were asked to retell a short story they heard. Students were able to remember more when gesturing.

“Gesturing, as we’re remembering, helps retrieve the information from memory,” Paul said. “It may be that when our working memory is exceeded, we offload some of that information onto our hands, and therefore we can deal with more information at once.”

Another way to extend the brain through the body, Paul explained, is through movement. This can help aid in understanding abstract concepts. Paul referred to a study by cognitive scientist Sian Beilock where students in a college physics class were asked to physically act out science concepts, while others were asked to watch the students act out the concepts.

“Those students that have experienced that concept in their bodies can call on the experience when they’re thinking about those concepts later on,” Paul explained. She added that for this type of active learning to work, students needed to have the physical experience themselves to learn—watching the experience did not aid in learning.

Given the importance of gestures and movement in learning, Paul argued that technology in classrooms might be more distracting than helpful. Paul addressed the ongoing debate of whether students in higher education should be taking notes by hand or with devices. In the college classes Paul has taught, she does not allow laptops because of the opportunity cost when students are engaging with screen time.

“What are they not doing when they’re using a screen?” Paul asked. “They’re not usually interacting face-to-face with a person and seeing the gestures and facial expressions. [They’re not] getting that social connection and social learning that is so important.”

The final way Paul discussed how the body can impact the mind is through posture, which can increase motivation. Paul cited a 2011 study by psychologist Adam Galinsky, who asked participants to either make an expansive or restrictive pose. After assuming their poses, they participated in a simulated game. Those who made an expansive pose ended up making more bold moves.

“Just by changing the way their bodies were arranged, these people felt more powerful and thought differently,” Paul stated. “They were more able to engage in abstract thinking and they were more confident, more willing to take a risk.”

The body, Paul explained, is just one of the resources that the brain pulls from. Given the many other resources around us, Paul concluded that the extended mind is powerful—and intelligence needs to be reconsidered.

“In admissions, in teaching, in grading, we shouldn’t so much be asking ‘How smart is this student?’ so much as ‘How well can he or she extend his or her mind? How can I arrange my teaching so that I’m modeling the process of extending my mind. How can I help myself and my students extend our minds efficiently and effectively?’”

The keynote was one of two UBC Centennial Sessions hosted by CTLT and part of Celebrate Learning Week, a weeklong showcase celebrating teaching and learning opportunities at UBC. A webcast of the event is available.


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