February 17, 2023 Founders Note 004

004: I’m At Capacity

“No, I can’t do that. I’m at capacity.”

When was the last time you heard yourself speak these words, let alone celebrate them?

I’ve been practicing. Like many of you, I live with daily reminders that there is no end to the to-do list. No productivity hack, drink, nor nootropic has enabled me to get to the end of the day with a self-satisfied and resolving “Done!” There is always more to do: tick-boxes with real business implications left unchecked, real people behind unread emails dependent on my response.

Each time I accept that I cannot do more, I face a small death. At a subconscious level, it requires I surrender to the limitations of my time, my will to perform, or my ability to produce. Practiced as I am with this reality, there’s still an emotional down, a physical slump in my shoulders, and a mental thread that articulates a deeply held belief: I could have done better. I will do better. How I relate to the gift and curse of a restless, ambitious drive is the thing that determines the quality of my inner life.

Compassion can be much easier to give to others than show to ourselves. On the days I am my own friend, I tell myself: It is what it is. That brain is simply beyond capacity.

In an essay for the New York Times, “How to Think Outside Your Brain,” author and science writer Annie Murphy Paul writes, “Some researchers suggest that we have pushed our mental equipment as far as it can go. It may be that ‘our brains are already working at near-optimal capacity.’ … Efforts to wrest more intelligence from this organ…’bump up against the hard limits of neurobiology.’”

This is difficult to accept. It’s alright when things are alright, but as soon as we notice a backwards slide in our mental abilities – we don’t remember as well as we used to, we’re more tired at the end of the day, we’re distracted more easily by more mundane things, we note our own fearfulness – we are not pleased. I could have done better. I will do better.

From my own experience, embodying the phrase, “No, I can’t do that. I’m at capacity,” is tinged with edges of despair, rigidity, and disappointment. These are qualities I don’t admire nor aspire to accept as valuable. I want, instead, to solve, fix, change, and improve. To get back to baseline.

It’s in these moments that I find inspiration from work around prosthetics, embodied cognition, and the writers who have helped me work with the physical limit and capacity of the brain as the human organ it is – and to instead use my tools, environment, and physical body to “think” beyond and outside my own brain. It’s an approach that allows me to have my cake and eat it too: I accept the limits of my own mind, while having options to seemingly extend its abilities. 

In “The Extended Mind,” Paul explains, “The modern world is extraordinarily complex, bursting with information, built around non-intuitive ideas, centered on concepts and symbols. Succeeding in this world requires focused attention, prodigious memory, capacious bandwidth, sustained motivation, logical rigor, and proficiency with abstractions. The gap between what our biological brains are capable of, and what modern life demands, is large and getting larger each day…with every twist of complexity added to the world’s problems, the naked brain becomes more unequal to the task of solving them.”

Our response to the cognitive challenges posed by our contemporary lives, she explains, has been to double down on a “brainbound” paradigm and to have an entrenched “neurocentric bias.” Brainbound thinking sees the brain as a thing removed – and humans as independent thinking machines. From this vantage point, my cognitive capacity is limited to how good the thing inside my skull is. It follows, then, that if I want to continue to grow, I have to biohack and optimize, because I need the thing between my ears to reach beyond the bounds of what it’s been built to customarily do. Computing becomes a metaphor for the mind, full of terabytes and processing speed and bandwidth. 

One of the things I most appreciate about the concept of an extended mind is that it puts notions of needing to hack and improve a lacking individual brain to shame. It gives power instead to other types of intelligence. When the brain is at cognitive capacity, other types of intelligence can switch on: the embodied intelligence responsible for how a walk can clear our mind, the relational intelligence that drives us to instinctually share with a trusted other, the emotional intelligence that, when enabled, allows a deep breath or a deep sigh to let it go. 

Our brains aren’t meant to be flogged into shape. They are meant to have limits, to rest, and to reach beyond their own capacity and grow through connection with everything that’s out there

When it comes to accepting my capacity, I’m still practicing. Admitting I can’t still doesn’t come easy. But I’m learning to find joy in the way my body, my team, and the wider world around me seem to always be able to pick up where I leave off.
Cristina Poindexter Co-Founder