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.

No comments:

Post a Comment