Reflections for Education and Parenting from Extended Mind: Movement

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes, 50 seconds

I’m still reading The Extended Mind by Annie Paul Murphy and here are some reflections from chapters 2 and 3 on Movement. In our reading circle yesterday, we did a “body scan” exercise to help with the interoception (mentioned in a previous blogpost, the topic of chapter 1) and we also tried to speak without gestures to see how it felt – and interestingly, not only does it affect the way someone’s message is received, it seemed to actually interrupt the flow of thought in the speaker’s own process of trying to express themselves. That was sooooooo fascinating to experience! The discomfort of everyone keeping their hands still, and our inability to stop moving our heads and shoulders, or how we overused our facial expressions to make up for lack of using hands! I guess we gesture with our whole bodies! But gesture is another chapter, and this one is on movement (I’ll blog about gesture later). Sorry, I think I jumped ahead here… let me go back to the beginning here 🙂

Early on in chapter 2, Murphy writes that “people who have fitter bodies generally have keener minds”, and while that rings true, and goes well with an Arabic saying that “The sound mind lies within the sound body” :

 العقل السليم في الجسم السليم

This does not sit well with me. It feels ableist and possibly ageist, and I’m really sensitive to this as someone with rheumatoid arthritis but who, I think, objectively speaking, is mostly of sound mind. OK, technically, I’m overall healthy, but because of my arthritis, my body has limits it probably wouldn’t normally have at my age. It does, however, make me think about how as we age, it is important that we keep moving to the extent to which we can, because this might influence the capacity to keep the brain fresh, as different examples in the book will show.

Focus, Movement and Fidgeting

One thing the book mentions which has always frustrated me is the way teachers in kindergarten and schools try to get kids to sit still, thinking this will help them focus, when the child’s intuition is to move. It may be better to allow kids to move as much as they want, because the movement itself will help them focus. I’ve always believed this, and I’ve seen my child sometimes move around while studying, and how sometimes when I’m explaining a concept to her and she moves around to sort of try to mimic it, it helps. Sometimes we’re even doing something that movement does not represent, but the fact that she is moving while studying and we talk about things helps her stay focused for longer – otherwise she would start fidgeting pretty quickly this. This was when she was 6 or 7. The book made me realize that fidgeting is the sign that people need to move, and this made me realize that I’ve been doing something in my classes for a while now, intuitively, which is to break activities up into 15 minute chunks, maximum 30 minute chunks, and then usually as we switch to a different activity, there is some amount of movement involved, either because the activity itself requires movement, or because they will get up and do things on the boards around the class, or because they will shift from large group to small group formation, things like that. I think I started doing this because I started to notice people fidget after 15-20 minutes, and I think that’s also why I used to give them a break to go outside (and they almost always went outside, especially when mask wearing was required indoors).

Movement Breaks

I am so on board with this idea of movement breaks and rest through movement. Almost no matter how tried I am, walking outdoors in good weather (sunshine or breeze) will replenish my body better than lying down. Even better if I’m walking with a friend or talking to a friend on the phone while doing so. The book concludes that “it’s through exerting the body that our brains become ready for the kind of knowledge work so many of us do today” and it shows multiple psychology experiments that prove over and over that people who do certain creative and cognitively challenging tasks while or after moving can perform better than while sitting still. In any case, I’ve been doing “walking meetings” for a while now and I’ll just keep doing them more, now that I know it’s not just good for wellbeing (which would have been enough anyway) but also for thinking and productivity! Win-win!

The book talks about 3 levels of intensity of exercise, and the low to moderate help us think, while the very high intensity movement makes it difficult to think during exercise but apparently helps with creativity afterwards, like a reset or something. It makes me sad because I can’t exercise intesely anymore, but I realized something funny: sometimes before class, I have to rush to get something from my office before class starts, and I often run over and back, which is as vigorous exercise as I’ll ever do, so maybe this actually energizes me mentally for class, not just physically. hmm

This also made me wonder about teens in high school and college and whether the act of moving from one class to another helps them recharge and focus in the next class? When they’re younger they are in the same class all day, but now they move to a different class and see different things along the way that could stimulate them – even better if they have to walk outside and see different nature scenes, right?

Some quotes from the book around this, with useful terminology “embodied cognition”: “the field of embodied cognition has produced persuasive evidence that our thoughts—even, or especially, those of an abstract or symbolic nature—are powerfully shaped by the way we move our bodies… we move our bodies, and our thoughts are influenced in turn… we can intentionally enhance our mental functioning through an application of physical activity”. There is research by a couple called the Noices who discovered that actors remember their lines better when a line is connected to a particular physical movement. Further research showed that this recall existed whether or not the actual physical movement was directly connected to the lines, or was just associated with it: “information that has become associated with a movement is better remembered when we can reproduce that same movement later, when we’re calling it up from memory. This may be possible in some situations—for example, when giving a speech for which we have practiced accompanying gestures—but moving while learning is still beneficial even when those movements can’t be replicated at the point of recall (during an exam, for instance).”

Murphy cites Beilock who calls this kind of thing “facilitated comprehension”, and his study shows that “people who have moved in different ways go on to think in different ways—an insight that can be applied well beyond sports.”

Types of Movement

The chapter concludes with describing 4 types of movement (though honestly, I feel like a lot of this chapter could apply to gesture, not just full body movement):

  1. Congruent movements, “express in physical form the content of a thought” (This reminds me of when my child was younger and we would do addition and subtraction by taking steps forward and back, and how I explained to her negative number that way. I also used to help her learn Quran by acting out the words – thought that might be #4? Not sure!). I also do an activity called Privilege Walk where we use students’ bodies moving forward and back to represent inequality and they always love it!
  2. Novel movements, movements that introduce us to an abstract concept via a bodily experience we haven’t had before. This feels like what labs do in sciences? Simulation? VR?
  3. Self-referential movements, embodiment. “Chinnici’s study found that students who had engaged in role-playing mitosis and meiosis achieved a more accurate understanding of the concept—a result mirrored in other, similar studies.” I’ve seen this done in biology classes especially, using student’s bodies to do this.
  4. Metaphorical movements, “metaphorical movements reverse-engineer this process, putting the body through the motions as a way of prodding the mind into the state the metaphor describes”.

There are lots of lab experiments referenced in the chapter, and while these are cool, they’re a bit… unconvincing for me to be honest. The convincing one was the professor who walks with students to brainstorm their dissertations. I did that once with my supervisor and it was a really good walk in a park. We even had to go through some stepping stones in a shallow stream and as he held my hand we talked about it as a metaphor for supervision/coaching.

One lab experiment I’ll always remember was one that asked participants to think outside the box, and some participants were literally sitting inside a box and others outside it, and the ones inside the box performed worse!!! haha

I finished the chapter reminded of the idea of “walking meetings” for MYFest last year, but we never got around to implementing them, though I did sometimes attend sessions while walking myself… I still wonder if this can be a thing. Maybe “meeting in motion” rather than walking, to be less ableist? Hmmm

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

One thought on “Reflections for Education and Parenting from Extended Mind: Movement

  1. Greg says:

    Wow Maha this is a great post and I definitely have mixed emotions about the topic. It certainly made me curious and I intend to check out the book. On one hand, I grew up in a culture where I learned that playfulness in movement, especially when interactive, gives a huge boost to creative thinking. On the other hand (and echoing your point on being ableist), I have several colleagues who are truly brilliant but have conditions that restrict their movement. I wonder what the author would say about this.

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