Thursday, April 23, 2015

Out of your head, through your body, into your smart phone: your extended mind

Google Maps on the Apple iPhone
(Image from

One trend our grandparents never predicted was the rise of mobile technology and the ‘Internet of Things’—portable, data-exchanging devices connected to the Web.  Walk around today and almost everyone carries a cell phone (over 90% of American adults have one, according to Pew Research).  But what’s curious is that cell phones are more than mere calling devices.  Really, they are minicomputers that help us access, remember, and analyze information.


iOS 8 on Apple iPhone 6
(Image from

Today, it’s as if your cell phone formed an external part of your memory, like an outer extension of your mind.  This is especially true for smart phones.  In fact, when it comes to remembering dates, directions, or appointments, the same could be said of other technologies such as Google Calendar, GPS, or (if you’re more old school) notebooks.

And yet these technologies do more than help us remember.  They also let us analyze and process information.  Calculators calculate.  Microsoft Office tools like Excel tabulate and cross reference data.  And the iPhone seems to do nearly everything except make bacon and eggs in the morning.

If we think of the brain as a business executive, then we see how it ‘outsources’ many operations.  Memory goes from ‘internal’ neurons to ‘external’ media.  Information processing moves from cranium to ‘offshore’ technologies.

(Image from Wikipedia)

Back in the 60s, media theorist Marshall McLuhan liked to say that these media and technologies are “extensions” of our sense perceptions and mental functions.  For instance, TV is an extension of your vision, radio of your hearing, computer hard drives of your memory.  In this light, mobile technology extends your information-processing brainpower.

McLuhan was onto something.  Believe it or not, many researchers in cognitive science now refer to such “extensions” as your “extended mind”!  Technology literally extends your mind into the world.

The notion that your mind extends beyond your head is difficult to grasp, because we (in the West) often tend to think of our mind as a ‘thing’ inside our head.  In fact, your mind is not a thing but a process, a field of cognitive functions, from sense perception to abstract reasoning.  Moreover, this process was never entirely inside your head in the first place—research in Embodied Cognition shows that your mind needs your body as well as your brain (see the previous post on Embodied Mind), because mental meaning depends on sensorimotor activity and physiology of emotion. 

To quote a witty line from philosopher Hilary Putnam, mind and mental meaning “just ain’t in the head.”  Mind and mental meaning also lie in the body (Embodied Mind theory) and occasionally in the technologies that constitute our world (Extended Mind theory).


Does mind really extend beyond the head?
(Image from Supersizing the Mind, by Andy Clark)

Extended Mind theory owes its popularity to a famous article by Andy Clark and David Chalmers.  Here’s the main idea, which is sometimes called “externalism” (the idea that mind and meaning depend on the ‘external’ world and not just on the ‘internal’ brain): when we remember or process information, we can do so with our brains or with our technologies, and often we use both.

For example, when we recall a street address or figure out directions, we may do so through our own biological memory, but we also may do it by employing technologies like notebooks, maps, or GPS apps.  “What really counts” when we form a belief about the street address or directions, say Clark and Chalmers, “is that the information is easily available when the subject needs it.”  So they conclude,

“The moral is that when it comes to belief, there is nothing sacred about skull and skin.
What makes some information count as belief is the role it plays, and there is no reason why the relevant role can be played only from inside the body.”

In sum, Clark and Chalmers allege that mind includes brain and body plus technologies in the world—all together, they enact a “coupled system” that we call “mind” or human cognition.

(Image from MIT Press)

Now there’s an important clarification we should make about Extended Mind theory, which Mark Rowlands explains nicely his book The New Science of Mind: From Extended Mind to Embodied Phenomenology.  When we say technology extends the mind into the world, we don’t just mean that the outside world supplies context or content (“The idea that things going on in the environment causally drive cognitive processes is an utterly mundane claim that anyone should accept,” says Rowlands).  We also mean that outside technologies form (at least part of) your mind (“processes occurring in the environment—that is, outside the brain—can, in part, literally constitute cognitive processes”).

Is it really true that technologies extend your mind?  Other than your brain and body, do smart phones, computers, book collections, or even the Internet itself make up parts of your mental processes?  It’s a provocative question, and if it piques your interest, you may want to listen to Chalmer’s answer in a notable TED Talk.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Out of your head, through your body: your embodied mind

In the US we’re almost through tax season, so right now we’re used to looking at math that drives us out of our minds.  For many people, math (let alone finance) is usually not a favorite subject, but math can be engaging when it blows your mind … right out of your head … literally.

Before you think I've gone nuts from doing taxes, I’ll show you what I mean.  It’s common to see graphs like this one in the business news.

US Markets
(Image from the NY Times)

When a market goes ‘up’ or ‘down,’ the meaning is so obvious that you don’t have to think much about it.  But consider a couple questions:

1) Is there anything in a market that literally moves ‘up’ or ‘down,’ and, if not, why do we say ‘up’ vs  ‘down’ when we really mean ‘more value’ vs ‘less value’?

2) Where does that value come from, and why the heck do I care what ‘direction’ the market is 'moving' anyway?

I say these questions can blow your mind out of your head, because the answers show us how our minds aren't just in our heads.  Yes, your mind extends beyond your cranial boundary, but before you dismiss this idea as crazy mysticism, consider the answers to our two questions:

1) Up & Down?  Let's tackle that first question.  Every day, people talk about rising or falling markets, even though markets are not physical things that literally rise or fall in space.  When we say that a market goes ‘up’ or ‘down,’ we of course mean it metaphorically.  But where does this metaphor come from: why does ‘up’ mean ‘more value’ and ‘down’ mean ‘less value’?

Research in cognitive linguistics and psychology shows that this metaphor comes right out of your bodily movement and visual experience.  Think about what happens when you fill a glass of water, pack a lunch, or pile up dirt in your garden.  When you hold more water, lunch, or dirt, you see the level in your glass, bag, or pot go up—when you hold less, you see the level go down.

An Image Schema

Hence, we experience a kinesthetic, visual pattern, or what cognitive scientists call image schema:

more is up, less is down.

Correlating More with Up and Less with Down

(Image from page 20 of Metaphors We Live By,

by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson)

From childhood to adulthood, we develop image schemas like this one, because our senses like vision and our bodily movement are closely linked in the brain—in fact, many neuroscientists argue that sense perception and bodily motion are one sensorimotor process (they call this argument sensorimotor contingency theory, which basically demonstrates there is Action in Perception).

Now in the case of water, lunch, or dirt, that image schema is literally true.  But then we creative humans take this concrete experience and use it to understand more abstract things, such as math and finance.  Hence, we make a metaphor: more market value is ‘up’ and less market value is ‘down.’  When that metaphor matures into mathematical logic, presto, we have the business section of the news that gives us the "movement" of markets!

(By the way, saying the "movement" of markets is metaphorical doesn't mean it's a lie.  Metaphors are true too, and not just in poetry—no one in our society disputes that time is money, love is a journey, time flies, etc.  Mark Johnson and George Lakoff call these "conceptual metaphors" in their classic book Metaphors We Live By.  In other words, metaphors are not just literary; they are mechanisms behind many concepts.)

2) Questioning value?  Now the second question.  Why does a market have ‘value’ anyway, and why do I care?  An obvious answer is that markets have value because they make money.  But a deeper question is why do we care?  And the undeniable answer is because we have feelings.

Descartes' Error
(Image from Amazon)

What do we feel?  Emotions.  Emotions are the electrochemical dynamics of your body—in the book Descartes' Error, neuroscientist Antonio Damasio calls them “somatic states” (from the Greek work soma, meaning body), or the states of your body.  Emotions are your body’s signals that tell you whether something is good or bad, fun or dangerous, sexy or scary.  In short, they tell you how valuable something is—or isn’t—by giving it a positive or negative valence.

Since emotions tell you whether or not something is valuable, Damasio likes to call them “somatic-markers”: emotions ‘mark’ our mental images as positive or negative.  In short, by giving value, emotions let us evaluate and make (hopefully good) decisions (although, keep in mind, our decisions are rarely perfect because human nature isn't perfect).


Out of Our Heads
(Image from Amazon)

Okay, so now we’ve answered our two questions.  So why would we say, as philosopher Alva Noe has said in an amusing book, that our minds go Out of Our Heads?

This talk is not so radical when you think of your mind not as a thing but as a process.  (To claim your mind is a thing is a Cartesian fallacy.)  As a process, your mind involves your head (obviously, there's no mind without brain), but it also extends throughout your body.  In everyday activities, from drinking water to calculating math, your mind could not think most things without image schemas, which are created not just by your brain and head (vision) but also by the movement of your hands, feet, and body (kinesthetic motion).  Also, your mind cannot evaluate and decide without emotion.  After all, your mind doesn’t just think; it feels.  And feelings wouldn’t exist without bodily emotions.

So your mind is not just in your head—it’s a process that runs through your body.  Here is the idea of what scientists call  "embodied mind": your mind is embodied, they like to say, because it requires not just a brain but also an active body.

Can we take this reasoning further?  Your mind is in your body, but your body is in the world.  Can the mind ‘extend’ beyond the body into the world?  In fact, some researchers who aren't insane think so.  Come back soon, and we’ll explore the idea of ‘extended mind’ in the next post.