Supersizing the Mind: The Science of Cognitive Extension

You enter your kitchen for a quick lunch: how is it exactly that your brain solves the problem “prepare lunch as efficiently as possible”?

Your brain effortlessly, almost instantaneously “assembles” a diverse mix of problem-solving resources on the spot. These “resources” can include knowledge, tools, or structures, and can be:

  • Mental: knowledge, experience, intuition
  • Physical: tools, environments, objects, visuals
  • Informational: instructions, diagrams, data
  • Biological: hands and fingers, limbs, the senses
  • Audio: sounds, songs, words
  • Social: relationships, communities

As you prepare your lunch, you are drawing on the informational resource of the printed recipe. But you may also lay out the ingredients you’ll need as you read, “storing” the sequence of actions you’ll take via their physical location. You may keep a count of how many eggs you’ve added by muttering under your breath, tracking this information using an auditory resource. You are also drawing on many mental resources, such as the meanings of the words you’re reading, common cooking conventions, and basic math to convert from liters to cups. You may ask your roommate where the seasonings are, or call your mom for her famous roasting tips, which are social resources. And of course, you are using your biological resource, your body, every step of the way to accomplish all of the above.

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