Where does your mind end?

By | 2017/03/27

Where does your mind end? Does it end at the borders of your brain, or does it extend beyond, out further into the world?

On the outset, you might be thinking I’m talking about telepathy. Are you able to concentrate and tip that glass of water over, levitate a Mini Cooper, or perhaps talk to people on the other side of the continent, mind to mind? No, I’m not talking about that.

The (let’s call it) border question is not something I’d specifically thought of before in that specific context, but it is a valid one.

I’d not heard of Andy Clark before, but I’ve certainly heard of David Chalmers*, who co-wrote the theory on the extended mind. In a recent Philosophy Bites episode, Andy Clark outlined what extended mind refers to. I heartily recommend listening to that episode of the podcast (and indeed, subscribing to Philosophy Bites).

The theory is simple – it’s easy to think of the mind as ending at the borders of the brain, but we’re smart tool users, and a tool that extends our cognitive capabilities could very well be considered to be an extension of our minds.

In 1676, Isaac Newton wrote:

If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.

This to me is part of the meaning behind the extended mind. Each generation has the potential to be smarter and achieve more on the basis of the recorded knowledge of previous generations. A modern physicist does not have to develop Newtonian or Einsteinian principles from scratch because the knowledge has already been acquired and passed on to others, and other generations.

Books, scrolls and maybe even things as simple as ancient cave art were all among the first examples of an extended mind. By writing things down, people were able to put their fingers on more information than could easily be remembered.

In the podcast, Andy Clark makes an example of two people who want to go to a museum. One looks at a map and goes to the museum. Another writes precise directions for getting to the museum from their place of departure and refers to those directions throughout the trip. In both instances, it’s still the mind being used. In the former, it’s a direct memory exercise, the latter an indirect memory exercise – remembering how to follow directions.

I could relate to this. Not because I’m terrible with directions and following maps (I can get lost using detailed maps with GPS and compass), but for a simpler example yet: I don’t try to remember everything I’ve got to do in a work-day just in my head. On an average day I have dozens of things I have to get done, and concentration on any of those things or even simple interruptions can result in me forgetting things that I need to do. To avoid that, I make lists. I start almost every day by making a list of all the things I need to get done, and all the things I’d like to get done, and tick them off as I go. At the start of the next day, I start the list with the things I didn’t get done from the day before. I don’t need to remember everything I have to do on a moment by moment basis because I remember how to remember – to check the list. The list is, to all intents and purposes, an extension of my memory, my mind.

Extended mind

Clark goes on to discuss a particularly ubiquitous piece of technology in modern society – the SmartPhone. This is a truly stellar example of the extended mind. I would hazard a guess that these days, I use my phone less than 1% of the time to actually make phone calls. I use it for email, messaging, socialising and a variety of other functions far more regularly.

Many of those functions I use it for definitely fall into the category of extending my mind.

“Siri, set a timer for 15 minutes.”

“Siri, wake me up at 5am.”

“Siri, what’s this song?”

I don’t want you to think it’s just about Siri – or any other automated assistant though. They’re good examples. I don’t need to mentally count down 15 minutes or hope that I wake up at 5am, I have something else do that for me so I can do other things. I don’t need to try to remember every song I’ve ever heard, I can just get something else to identify the song for me.

It’s more than that, though. If I need to add a bunch of numbers, I could do it manually or I could do it more accurately using the calculator function on my phone. If I need to call someone, I can try to manually remember their number, or I could remember to use the contacts application and find their name. (In fact, this was one of the earliest things I noticed about having a mobile phone. I stopped bothering to try to remember dozens and dozens of phone numbers by heart because I could have them all programmed into a phone’s contact list.)

For a science fiction variant of this, pay close attention to the eButler in Peter F. Hamilton’s Commonwealth Saga.

And, even though Clark questions the validity of it, I use my phone constantly to get access to the world-wide wealth of knowledge that is encapsulated by the Internet. A face looks familiar in a movie and I go to IMDB to confirm where I’ve seen the actor before. I’m having a discussion about something historical and we collectively can’t agree on the year it happened in – rather than it being unresolved, it gets solved in seconds with a quick search. To me that’s most definitely the mind, extended. I don’t have to know everything, I just have to know how to find it out. This is even something I’ve considered to be a central tenet of consulting: knowing how to find information better than others.

I think understanding that we naturally use the tools available to us to extend the mind is something that will have increasing importance over the coming decades. There is at times a stuffy view of how things should be done, of how things should work, of how people should work that many hold on to. The greatest lie ever told is that’s how it’s always been done before, because that’s never been the case. Every generation has introduced new ways of doing things. If we acknowledge our minds can be extended by the tools we’re using, we will rapidly and more efficiently develop new ways of thinking, of working, and even of playing.

You may not immediately agree with me, but I invite you to listen to the Andy Clark/Philosophy Bites podcast and think of how you extend your mind on a daily basis. You may be surprised.


* As a philosophy student, I studied Chalmers via his exceptional book, What is this thing called science?