The Extended Mind: The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain

This is the most important book I’ve read in 2022.

Psychologist Roger Barker had set out to discover why people behave as they do by recording their activities in minute detail as they went about their everyday lives. With his colleague Herbert Wright, he set up the Midwest Psychological Field Station in Oskaloosa (population 750), and began following a group of children from the instant they woke up in the morning to the moment they were put to bed at night.
From their exhaustive observations, a distinct pattern emerged. As one scholar notes, “Barker and his colleagues found that there was a great deal of order, consistency, and predictability in the children’s behavior.” But this order was not a product of the children’s personalities, nor their intelligence, nor any other internal quality. Rather, the factor that overwhelmingly determined the way the children acted was the place in which they were observed. As Barker himself reported, “The characteristics of the behavior of a child often changed dramatically when he moved from one region to another, e.g. from classroom, to hall, to playground, from drugstore to street, from baseball game to shower room.”
Barker’s “Midwest Study,” which ultimately extended over a quarter-century, generated reams of evidence that the spaces in which we spend our time powerfully shape the way we think and act. It is not the case that we can muster the ability to perform optimally no matter the setting—a truth that architects have long acknowledged, even as our larger society has dismissed dismissed it. Christopher Alexander, author of the classic book A Pattern Language and an architect who celebrates the hard-earned wisdom embedded in folk architecture, laments “the arrogance of the belief that the individual is self-sufficient, and not dependent in any essential way on his surroundings.” To the contrary, Alexander writes, “a person is so far formed by his surroundings, that his state of harmony depends entirely on his harmony with his surroundings.” He adds: “Some kinds of physical and social circumstances help a person come to life. Others make it very difficult.”
Today, we too often learn and work in spaces that are far from being in harmony with our human nature, that in fact make intelligent and effective thinking “very difficult.” Yet the built environment—when we know how to arrange it—can produce just the opposite effect: it can sharpen our focus; it can sustain our motivation; it can enhance our creativity and enrich our experience of daily life. A tour through recent research in psychology and neuroscience, and through the varied kinds of places that humans have long created, can show us how to turn space into an extension of our minds.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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