Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Building the Mind, Scaffolding the Brain—sometimes in the name of love!

In the realm of movies, I don't actively seek out chick flicks or romance films.  But since my wife will kick back to some muscle-flexing, action flicks with me, I'll watch the occasional sweet, romantic comedy with her.  Consequently, we tend to alternate genres during our stay-at-home movie nights.  She sits through Terminator with me, I watch Pretty Woman with her.

Image from (IMDb)


Lately we watched a romantic comedy neither of us had seen before: 50 First Dates, with Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore.  I usually find Adam Sandler movies hilarious, and this one was no exception.  Sandler plays Henry, a veterinarian who tries to win the heart of Drew Barrymore’s character, Lucy, a lady with amnesitic disorder (a memory problem caused by brain damage).  Although Henry and Lucy meet and fall for each other at a diner, Lucy wakes up the next day unable to remember Henry and their encounter.

Henry soon learns that Lucy wakes up each day thinking it’s October 13th, the date she suffered head injuries from a car accident.  She cannot form any new memories of meeting the guy who loves her.  Henry therefore has to court her again and again … throughout the course of 50 ‘first dates’!

It’s a charming film.  Without giving away the whole plot, I’ll just say that Henry and Lucy finally end up together by figuring out a clever trick.  Each day, she wakes up to a videotape labeled “Good Morning Lucy,” a home-made recording that recaps her accident, her 50+ dates with Henry, and their eventual wedding.  She also learns to keep a diary and express her new experiences in painting.  In short, she uses cues from video, audio, and print media in place of her damaged brain to remember her life and the man she loves.

There’s a revelation here about relationships, and I don't just mean boyfriend-girlfriend relationships.  I also mean the relationship between our mind and our technology.  When you think about it, we all do what Lucy does to some extent.  I keep a notebook and a planner handy to track my weekly tasks.  My wife and I use Google Calendar to remind us about our upcoming appointments.  IBM Notes—including its contact lists, email, calendar, and to-do list—is one of my best friends at work.  In today’s Information Age, we all use technologies to support our memory in one way or another, especially as data increase exponentially, exceeding our own brain storage capacity and creating information overload.

Technology not only supports our memory; it also does some of our thinking for us.  We use calculators to calculate problems instead of doing the math in our heads.  We use Google Maps to plot directions instead of mapping them ourselves.  Much of your mind, from reminiscence to thinking, isn’t just in your brain.  Memory and thought are also in your technologies.

We might say that parts of our minds are ‘extended’ via technology.  In fact, many cognitive scientists talk about our “extended mind” in this way.  Andy Clark, a respected researcher in cognitive science, likes to say that technology is “scaffolding” around the mind.  Just as a work crew uses scaffolding to support building construction, we use technology and media to support and extend our mental functions (like memory and thought).  We can call the result our “extended mind,” where “mind” includes both brain (a foundation of mind) and technology (the scaffolding of mind).

    

(Image from Amazon.com)

(Image from Amazon.com)

As a quick aside, I should mention how the term “scaffolding” was inspired by psychologist Lev Vygotsky—see his book Thought and Language—who coined the phrase “Zone of Proximal Development” (ZPD).  ZPD refers to what students can’t yet recall by themselves without resources that support learning and memory—e.g., books support language learning; multiplication tables support algebraic memory.  

Educational psychologists today call these resources “instructional scaffolding,” which may be removed after students commit lessons to memory (just as a building’s scaffolding may be removed when construction is completed).

Clark uses the term a bit differently.  For Clark—see his book Being There—“scaffolding" is a perpetual extension of our brain, which “offloads” information onto technology.

So perhaps, like Lucy, our minds aren’t just in our heads.  Try to remember how you remember, or try to think about how you think, with and without the support of technology.  Just as many kinds of thinking (e.g., artistic and scientific) may not be possible without language or tools, some types of thought and memory may not be possible without technology and media.

And yet our mental dependence on technologies and media may not be a bad thing … especially when we use them, as did Lucy, in the name of love.

Lucy and Henry using painting and print media to remember their love.
(Image from IMDd)


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