Where does your mind exist? There’s a longstanding “common sense” view that it’s inside your skull. But, it’s becoming apparent, that is far from the whole story. Yes, of course a lot of what we call the mind is related to brain activity and the brain is indeed inside the skull, but many researchers are discovering that just as the brain does not exist in isolation, neither can cognition, behaviour, a sense of self, for example, be understood solely on the basis of brain processes. If we want to understand the mind we have to consider the body in which the brain is embedded. Phrases such as “embedded mind” and “embodied mind” capture the essence of this view, and the more you think about it, the more your realise the importance of the incredible network of connections between the brain and the rest of the body.
I get frustrated by doctors and scientists who act as if we can divide a human being into two components – a body and a mind. Especially when they then use this arbitrary and false dichotomy to actually recommend treatments for people’s illnesses. The “embodied mind” concept binds the body and the mind inextricably. That makes a lot of sense to me. I’ve never met a mind without a body, and the only bodies I’ve met without minds have been in the mortuary.
However, some thinkers, scientists and researchers have pushed the idea of “embedded minds” a stage further. (the difference being that “embodied” is exactly what it says – “in the body”; whereas “embedded” argues for a broad contextual understanding which situates the mind in it’s multiple environments). Andy Clark, who promotes the concept of the “extended mind” is one of the writers who has taken this furthest.
I have three of Andy Clark’s books. The first one I read was “Being There” (ISBN 0-262-53156-9), which was given as a key reference in “Smart World” by Richard Ogle . That book deals with the concept of the “embodied mind”.
Might it not be more fruitful to think of brains as controllers for embodied activity? That small shift in perspective has large implications for how we construct a science of the mind. It demands, in fact, a sweeping reform in our whole way of thinking about intelligent behaviour. It requires us to abandon the idea (common since Descartes) of the mental as a realm distinct from the realm of the body; to abandon the idea of neat dividing lines between perception, cognition, and action.
Being There describes how this concept evolved and lays out the implications of the model. Six years later he published “Natural-born Cyborgs” (ISBN 0-19-517751-7). Here he challenges us to consider just how we, as human beings, extend ourselves outwith the bounds of our physical biology.
For what is special about human brains, and what best explains the distictinctive features of human intelligence, is precisely their ability to enter into deep and complex relationships with nonbiological constructs, props and aids. This ability, however, does not depend on physical wire-and-implant mergers, so much as on our openness to information-processing mergers.
He tracks the evolution of these interactions
….from speech and counting, morphs first into written text and numerals, then into early printing, and on to the revolutions of moveable typefaces and the printing press, and most recently to the digital encodings that bring text, sound and image into a uniform and widely transmissible format…..they constitute, I want to say, a cascade of “mindware upgrades”
What matters most is our obsessive, endless weaving of biotechnological webs: the constant two-way traffic between biological wetware and tools, media, props, and technologies. The very best of these resources are not so much used as incorporated into the user herself. They have the power to transform our sense of self, of location, of embodiment, and our own mental capacities. They impact who, what and where we are. In embracing our hybrid natures, we give up the idea of the mind and the self as a kind of wafer-thin inner essence, the human person emerges as a shifting matrix of biological and nonbiological parts. The self, the mind, and the person are no more to be extracted from that complex matrix than the smile from the Cheshire Cat.
I particularly like this phrase from his concluding chapter in that book -
Our most significant technologies are those that allow our thoughts to go where no animal thoughts have gone before. It is our shape-shifter minds, not our space-roving bodies, that will most fully express our deep cyborg nature.
In his most recent book, “Supersizing the Mind” (ISBN 978-0-19-533321-3), he reproduces the original article which he wrote with David Chalmers, where they both laid out this concept of an “extended mind”. That article alone is worth reading, and, in fact, he recommends you read it first before reading the rest of the book. He juxtaposes the concept “BRAINBOUND” with “EXTENDED”.
According to BRAINBOUND, the (nonneural) body is just the sensor and effector system of the brain, and the rest of the world is just the arena in which adaptive problems get posed and in which the brain-body system must sense and act.
Maximally opposed to BRAINBOUND is a view according to which thinking and cognizing may (at times) depend directly and noninstrumentally upon the ongoing work of the body and/or the extraorganismic environment. Call this model EXTENDED. According to EXTENDED, the actual local operations that realise certain forms of human cognizing include inextricable tangles of feedback, feed-forward, and feed-around loops; loops that promiscuously criss-cross the boundaries of brain, body and world. The local mechanisms of mind, if this is correct, are not all in the head. Cognition leaks out into body and world.
Why is all this important? Well, I think Andy Clark puts it well himself -
This matters because it drives home the degree to which environmental engineering is also self-engineering. In building our physical and social worlds, we build (or rather massively reconfigure) our minds and our capacities of thought and reason.
This is the why this way of thinking so exciting. How does our physical environment shape not just our patterns of thought, but our whole sense of personhood? How does it limit, or potentially expand, what we think we are and what we think we can be? Our social world is a fundamentally narrative one. So what are the stories we are told in our societies? And what stories do we choose to tell each other? How does this narratively-constructed world both shape our sense of personhood, and stimulate our imaginations to become something more than we are now?
If all this seems a little esoteric for you, read David Chalmers foreword to “Supersizing the Mind”. You’ll immediately grasp the everyday-ness of all this as he talks about how getting an iphone has changed his life, and, further, how the use of notebooks, and visual cues, can maintain independent living in patients with Alzheimer’s way beyond what would be possible were they to rely on the minds inside their skulls!
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