Blog / 2022 / Extending Your Mind

February 22, 2022

Years ago now, I came across one book that shaped my thinking and my art more than any other: The Meme Machine by Susan Blackmore. In it, the author proposes that humans evolved to be expert imitators. She suggests that our brains are the way they are because imitation gave us an evolutionary edge. Considering that my actual TEDx talk is “In Defense of Imitation” and that I encourage artists to question copyright law, I think it’s obvious just how much Blackmore’s ideas influenced me!

Today, I want to add a second book to my “so this is what it feels like to have all your thinking upset in the most delightful manner possible” category: Annie Murphy Paul’s The Extended Mind.

Annie Murphy Paul’s The Extended Mind
Annie Murphy Paul’s The Extended Mind

In it, Paul affirms again and again all the ways that thinking does not happen inside our skulls. It happens in our gestures, in our fidgeting, and in exercise—particularly the kind we do together. It happens in our environment, in the calming fractal patterns of nature and in how empowered we feel in a given place. It happens socially, through sharing, arguing, and teaching, but also through imitating.

child portrait miniature painting process
painting process

Tiny children understand this better than most adults. Toddlers know deep in their core that we’re copiers and that our survival depends on our ability to copy each other while also making adjustments as we go.

The funny thing is, of course, that the reason most adults cannot see the importance of imitation is because they’ve learned not to see it. In other words, grownups judge imitation as lazy or wrong because they’re imitating all the people who glorify the myth of the isolated genius who invents in a vacuum!

I pride myself on being a copier. I happily juxtapose my art with the pieces that inspire it, like in this video for example. And my work is resolutely figurative, or, to put it another way, my art imitates life.

Portraits like this one are where I began as an artist. For the first eight years of my career, I painted people exclusively. And while I now also make images of nonhuman animals as well as plants and places, I still consider myself a portraitist in my heart of hearts, because portraiture is the embodiment of imitation. The act of taking the time to really see another human and convey what I’ve seen satisfies my deeply human need to copy like nothing else can.

child portrait miniature painted by Lambertville artist Gwenn Seemel
Gwenn Seemel
acrylic on panel
3 x 2 inches

Paul spends almost the entirety of The Extended Mind proving all the ways that thinking happens outside the brain, leaving me mindstorming about all the ways I can stop being so “in my head” with my thinking.

But my favorite part of the book has to be the last few lines. The author makes it clear just how narrow our minds have become, noting that, once we accept how much our givens—those genetic and situational aspects of our lives that we cannot choose—impact our thinking, then racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, and classism become impossible to ignore.

Maybe this post made you think of something you want to share with me? Or perhaps you have a question about my art? I’d love to hear from you!


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