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With The Stress Of The Pandemic, Are We Reaching Brain Capacity?

Anatomical drawing of the human brain and cerebral nerves.  (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Anatomical drawing of the human brain and cerebral nerves. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Remember learning humans only use 10% of our brains? That’s 100% false.

Our brains are constantly active — reasoning, planning, sensing — and it turns out, our brains do have limits.

In fact, author Annie Murphy Paul argues our brains may have reached their limits. Regardless of age, humans are simply processing a lot of information these days. But there are ways we can use our bodies to help strengthen our minds’ ability to hold information.

In her new book, “The Extended Mind: The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain,” Murphy Paul writes that people have been putting more demand on their brains for a long time.

“Everyday life started to become more cognitively challenging” at the beginning of the 20th century, she says. At this point, people’s daily lives started to involve more abstract concepts than physical, concrete tasks. And the trend continued throughout the rest of the century.

Then, over the last two decades, the internet and digital technology have thrown our brains into overdrive, she says.

“We’re not imagining things,” she says. “We really are being asked to do much more with our brains now than ever before.”

Neuroscientist Peter Reiner published a study in 2016 that said our brains have reached near full capacity after decades of responding to stress. It’s possible to lessen the burden on our brains, he says, but people haven’t succeeded in doing so thus far.

“I think it’s really just a matter of biology that we’ve been on this trajectory for quite a number of years,” he says. “You can exercise muscles to a certain degree, but then at some point, you’re at the physical capacity of muscles. And I think that it’s a reasonable analogy with our brains.”

The solution requires reaching beyond the brain and utilizing what Murphy Paul calls our “extra-neural” resources. That can mean exercising outside to refuel our brains or using Post-it Notes to organize all the thoughts in our heads.

“We’ve cultivated the use of the brain to such an extent that we’ve really overlooked all the ways that we could be learning to think outside the brain,” she says. “I think we could use a much more systematic and organized approach to cultivating that other way of being smart.”

Interview Highlights

On the ramifications of humans maxing out their brain capacity

Annie Murphy Paul: “We’re always hearing about how extraordinary the human brain is, how astonishing, how it’s the most complex structure in the universe. And then at the same time, we know that our own brains fail us, you know, not infrequently. We can’t remember things or we can’t focus or pay attention or stay motivated. And as our culture has become so complex and so demanding, we’re really having to reach outside the brain to get things done. We really can’t rely on the brain alone. We have to be drawing in what you could call extra-neural resources that is outside the brain resources to think as well as we need to do.”

“These sensations of our bodies, the movements of our bodies, the gestures of our hands, all these things can be drawn into the thinking process. Thinking is actually a kind of full-body activity if you pay attention to the inner cues of the body and if you utilize its ability to move through space and to complement our verbal expression with the gestures of our hands, we can actually think more intelligently by bringing the body into the picture.”

On how physical activity helps make up for the limits that we are experiencing in our brains

Murphy Paul: “In a whole variety of ways. I mean, more vigorous activity, which this is the purpose of recess, right? Every teacher knows that students who have had a chance to run and play and get out their physical energy come back to the classroom, more attentive, more focused. And yet, you know, again, there’s been this emphasis on seat time, on the idea that students should be spending as much time as possible sitting [and] learning. And that really leaves out the role of physical activity in promoting effective thinking.”

On the six books host Tonya Mosley needs to read and how getting active outside can help with that task

Murphy Paul: “It would definitely help if you [worked out] in nature. You know, I write in the book about how the kind of information, the kind of sensory information that we encounter in nature is especially well suited to restoring our attention. You know, we think so much about how to direct our attention and how to spend our attention, but we don’t think so much about how to refill the tank. And it turns out that spending time in nature is one of the best ways to do that. So I would definitely encourage a walk or a run outside in nature.

Reiner: “I’d like to interject one more thing, which is that remembering what went on in all six books, [for example], is really not what your brain is designed to do. And in fact, going back to this idea of, you know, using your brain wisely, we’ve come to a place where really the idea of the best use of your brain is not necessarily harnessing all that information and storing it, but knowing how to find it, knowing how to manipulate it and understanding the concepts that are there, and that is kind of a new thing in the world. Certainly, the availability of the vast repository of information on the Internet at our fingertips 24/7 allows for just that situation. But we make the mistake of it when we try to stuff it all inside our biological brains.”

Murphy Paul: “We try to do too much in our heads in general, I would say. And Tonya, when you’re thinking of those six books you have to read, I wonder if there’s a way that some of that could be downloaded, offloaded from your mind onto, say, Post-it Notes or a whiteboard. You know, the more you can get the contents of your brain out into physical space where you can move around it, you can move it around. When we’re talking about Post-it Notes, you can navigate through it as if it’s a physical landscape. Those are human strengths that we can’t take advantage of when we keep it all locked inside our head.”

On what people can take away from this information

Reiner: “I want to say that it’s not really all bad news, recognizing that our biological brains are working at their limits, because as Annie’s book really lays out in a wonderful way, there is this concept of extending our cognitive abilities outside of our brains and doing some cognitive offloading of perhaps things that are relatively trivial, like remembering a phone number or an address or something like that, that is not a great use of this fantastic three pound organ between our ears. And that affords an opportunity that is yet a little bit unrealized, which is that we can do things better. And what we really need is kind of a systematic program to teach children and adults effective ways to manage this cognitive offloading so that our brains are freed up for more interesting tasks that they can really do extremely well and creativity, analytic thinking, things like that.”

Murphy Paul: “We live in such a brain bound, such a neuro centric society that’s really so focused on the brain, and I think that limits us because we have this idea that the way to think well is just to push harder, you know, to apply some grit or some growth mindset. These are some really popular ideas out there. And as Peter is saying, really our best shot for thinking more intelligently at this point is to reach beyond the brain, to pull in these extra-neural resources, which include not only the body, but also the physical spaces in which we learn and work, our relationships with other people and our devices.”


Samantha Raphelson produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Jill RyanAllison Hagan adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.