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Externalizing thought yields clarity


In a closed world consisting of a person and an external representation (diagram, illustration, written problem statement etc.), why do people do more than just think with their heads?

Externalizing yields clarity. For example, rubber duck debugging. Cognitive processes flow to wherever it is cheaper to perform them.

It can be “cheaper” to think outside your head. Sometimes it is easier to physically modify the external world and interpret the result than simulating/computing a new state mentally. This is called epistemic action. Rather than trying to reason about something in your head, change the external world and use the result to validate a hypothesis.

Related paper: On Distinguishing Epistemic from Pragmatic Action. Tetris players rotated and moved blocks to see if they fit because it was easier for them rather than simulating the fit in their head. Pragmatic action: performed to bring one physically closer to a goal Epistemic action: performed to uncover information that is hidden, or is hard to compute mentally.

Externalizing allows use of “additional neural hardware”. Roughly half of human cortex is devoted to visual, spatial and motor processing. Relying only on reading to understand something is leaving a lot of brain capacity unused. People recruit “additional neural hardware” to help them study dense passages, or understand interactions of dynamic systems. Related YouTube video: Mind in motion: How action shapes thought.


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