The mind at work

Of brains and bodies


Published on April 08, 2021

What I learned on a two-year journey into the mind at work.

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What is a knowledge worker? Most people would say it’s a person who works with their brain as opposed to their body.

But there are no brains without bodies, or bodies without brains—except in science fiction. In the real world, who we are physically, emotionally, and culturally has a big impact on the work we do and how effective we are doing it.

This past year has been a challenging time to think about brains. Our social isolation has reminded us of how dependent we are on other people for our own equilibrium. At the same time, our increased reliance on the internet and everything connected to it has shown us how destabilizing always-on global culture can be.

The act of donning a mask and venturing out into a potentially infectious world made me hyper aware of my body and my proximity to other bodies. This self-consciousness reinforced my sense of autonomy, while my preoccupation with news of COVID’s worldwide impact became an enlarged social consciousness. Pulled between extremes, I wondered where am “I” in all this?

If writing The Mind at Work series has shown me anything, it’s that the ways we’re accustomed to thinking about our minds are obsolete. The “I” behind our eyeballs is neither running the show nor completely at the mercy of social constructions—but somewhere messy in between. 

The “I” behind our eyeballs is neither running the show nor completely at the mercy of social constructions—but somewhere messy in between.

And for all of the ways it has extended our minds and transformed the world, digital technology may not be helping us understand ourselves any better. In fact, the insularity of iPhones and the micro-targeting of social media perpetuate the illusion of our psychic sovereignty. Our ability to create and navigate social reality, psychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett reminds us, is the human superpower, and yet “a superpower works best when you know you have it.”

This idea of mental superpowers itself is problematic, because it evokes the superheroes that have them. As science fiction writer Ted Chiang told Ezra Klein recently, “pretty much all superheroes behave in a sort of magic way because the abilities are embodied in a single individual. Those abilities never really spread.” 

The hardest thing to wrap our heads around may be that human intelligence is very much a team sport. Chiang addressed this in a recent New Yorker article about Why Computers Won’t Make Themselves Smarter. Isaac Newton invented calculus, he writes, and it “enabled him to solve certain problems that he couldn’t solve before, but he was not the biggest beneficiary of his invention—the rest of humanity was.”

Taking the long view, we see how improbable our current state of evolution is. What’s really propping up humanity isn’t some ideal end state we’re aspiring to, but our mutual desire to keep aspiring together. From this perspective, as I discussed with author Simon Sinek, human capital is a renewable resource not a fixed cost.

Populations of humans bear some resemblance to populations of neurons. Most brain imaging, until recently, has been limited to population-level dynamics. But as the work of neuroscientists like Kay Tye and her team shows, our ability to now target individual neurons reveals the incredible diversity within brain structures like the amygdala that affect our emotional responses.

An idea that philosopher Andy Clark has been puzzling over lately is whether our experience of our own consciousness may be “just one more inference made by the predictive brain to capture patterns in how we respond to the world.” Would this mean that consciousness is an illusion, as many spiritual traditions have maintained over the millennia? Perhaps, but it’s an illusion that, with few exceptions, we all share.

For all of the messiness of our minds, there are very real constraints on the bounds of our mess. This is where Karl Friston’s free energy principle has proved itself a useful device in fields ranging from neuroscience and psychiatry to ethology and evolutionary biology. Friston has shown that the brain, and by definition any complex adaptive system, will always find the path that over a given time period minimizes uncertainty.

As I discussed with author Simon Sinek, human capital is a renewable resource not a fixed cost.

One thing this means is that our technology, our culture, even to use Clark’s example, our own consciousness is working hard all the time to fulfill our expectations. And sometimes, in the case of social bias, political manipulation, or mental illness, our brains try too hard to maintain the illusion, and bad things happen.

Indeed, we still follow WIlliam James who wrote, “We are making use of only a small part of our possible mental and physical resources.” This alluring idea led to the still widely believed—but definitively wrong—conceit that we only use 10% of our brains. If only, the snake oil salesman claims, we could use the other 90%!

Based on my survey of the literature and conversations with neuroscientists, psychologists, and lots of other smart folks, I think the picture is quite the opposite. We should have more sympathy for our own brains because they’re doing the best they can.

Language is a useful example of what I mean. We’re taught in school, and reminded through social stratification, that there’s a proper way to speak, and most people are doing it wrong. Linguist Daniel Dor undermines this false perfection and shows that language is at its most vital when it’s broken and when we work together to repair our damaged relationships.

Our bodies, too, moving and gesturing through space are a big part of these relationships. Psychologist Barbara Tversky’s research points to how spatial thinking underlies language, and how we use the physical world to get our mental work done. Sometimes, she’s found, a simple diagram with an arrow can get the idea across faster than a fancy 3D animation.

Aspiring to perfection is a big part of the problem. The whole classical idea of the brain as a passive, but perfect, processor of external information has led us to unrealistic expectations. What we passionately believe is the truth is really just our brain’s best guess.

In a recent follow up conversation with psychologist Alison Gopnik, she spoke of her wariness of “theoretical megalomania,” particularly in relation to ideas about consciousness. Her current work focuses on how young children learn compared to AI agents rewarded for curiosity.

Over the span of these 14 interviews I’ve felt very rewarded for my curiosity. After my first conversation with Friston, he emailed referring to my “epistemic journey.” That phrase itself captures so much of what I learned. The brain is poised for action (as Lisa Feldman Barrett would say, keeping our body budget in balance) but also for discovery.

This two-sidedness is found everywhere in nature. As Friston formulates, every thing that is a thing has a boundary on the other side of which is the world—which is everything the thing is not. But instead of looking at this as a duality, mind and body, or self and world, the image presented by contemporary brain science is more like the unbroken unity of our breath.

Author James Nestor’s explains that inhaling excites us and exhaling calms us down, and he explains how “we can use this simple fact to great effect.” Mindfulness, from this perspective, is not just a way to calm your body and mind, it’s a way to actively understand how they work together.

We should have more sympathy for our own brains because they’re doing the best they can.

This idea of simple things unfolding into more complex things is the story of life. Any system that’s alive will generate emergent behavior and evolve over time. Harvard Business School Professor Amy Edmondson talks about personal and organizational learning in terms of how emergent systems arise bottom up from simple interactions into complex systems. And neuroscientist Daniel Levitin shows how the musical brain has evolved complex behavior from simple rules—evolution we can hear.

Although we’re enthralled by the world’s complexity, when we make things, we should emulate the brain and strive for simplicity. “Simple is better than complex. Complex is better than complicated,” read aphorisms inspired by creator of the Python programming language, Guido van Rossum. “This advice,” I ventured, “could almost be a recipe for how the brain prioritizes its functions to use energy efficiently.” 

The reason we need to use energy efficiently is because there’s so much work to do. Poet Amanda Gorman captured our imaginations at January’s inauguration with her economy of word and gesture in The Hill We Climb. Her choice of image was fitting and clever, but it pointed as well to hill climbing as an essential metaphor for work. Building a diverse society, just like learning from diverse experiences, is hard work that defies the law of entropy.

The big takeaway for me from two years of research and conversations wasn’t the grandiosity of sweeping claims about the nature of everything, but the practical effect we can have on our lives by using our minds wisely. Samin Nosrat insists that we must learn what tastes good to us. Not to an idealized palate, not to our followers on Instagram, but to each of us uniquely. An engaged sense of taste naturally leads to discovery and a desire to share with others.

Reading through the stories in this collection, I noticed a shift from a narrow focus on this thing called the brain to an increasing interest in how all these brains in all these bodies extend their minds into this social experience we call the world. Our work, from writing, to cooking, to programming, and theorizing, is the making of this shared world, and our minds are richer for it.