Extending the Mind

Eleven years ago, the philosophers Andy Clark and David Chalmers made a bizarre claim: our minds were not limited to our brains, but extended out of our heads to encompass many things beyond us, from notebooks to hammers to language. I have been vaguely aware of their “Extended Mind Hypothesis” for a while now, but it wasn’t until I got a copy of Clark’s latest book, Supersizing the Mind: Embodiment, Action, and Cognitive Extension, that I spent some time getting to know it better. And as counterintuitive as it may be at first, it makes a fair amount of sense when you take a look at the results of recent experiments on real minds.

The original paper was, in hindsight, marvelously forward-thinking. I’m sure at the time it seemed like little more than a thought experiment. But today, when so many of us spend our days melded to computers or cell phones, relying on the Internet to organize our lives and answer our questions, the Extended Mind takes on a fresh urgency

There are plenty of people lamenting that all these machines and networks are crippling our minds. There are certainly good ways and bad ways to interact with our machines, but I have a hard time takng most technology Cassandras seriously. They have a comforting notion of how the mind works, but it’s not very useful for making sense of experiments scientists have run to learn about how our brains change dynamically as we invent and use new tools.

In my Brain column this month, I explore the Extended Mind, and what it means for us today. Check it out.

[Image of Andy Clark: The Edge]

0 thoughts on “Extending the Mind

  1. This reminds me of Dawkins’ “Extended phenotype”, where the beaver’s phenotype encompasses its dam, pond, etc. It suggests that a mind is the mind plus those bits of reality it interacts with.

    I dunno. The contents of the phone book still seem rather external to my mind, to my mind.

  2. Most of the article doesn’t seem controversial. Clearly, books, computers and computer networks extend our access to information which, in more primitive circumstances, we’d have to store in our feeble memory banks.

    To me, the more interesting notion is that we leverage each others’ thinking to create ‘super brains’. Language permits a degree of access to another’s thoughts, and by cooperative thinking (working in an effective group) and division a labor, a large problem can be solved by a group. And, over time, very large problems can be solved. I think of the evolution of heart surgery since WWII.

    Along similar lines, Jamshed Bharucha has a very interesting speculation that understanding “the synchronization of brains” is the future event that will change everything.


    On Carl’s suggestion, I’ve ordered Clark’s book.

  3. Very nice piece. I took a graduate philosophy class from Andy Clark in the mid-90s, and have always found his ideas intuitively appealing. Imagine if you had a wireless connection that pushed data directly into your brain. Surely you would come to consider that connection part of your mind. The difference between that interaction and the way many of us rely on iPhones is one of degree.

  4. Let’s be careful not to confuse extended memory [the note/Google] to an extended brain/mind [embedded computer chip]. That understood, the next real evolution of humanity will be implants of all sorts. It’s scary and wonderful at the same time…

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