This talk originally presented on 25 March 2011.
It seems obvious to most of us that our minds are within our heads but some contemporary thinkers have other ideas. Can we extend our mind ‘beyond skin and skull’? Is it outside our heads already anyway?
This talk examines some of these ideas and where I think they lead to – often back inside our heads to the workings of our brains. Via topics as diverse as telepathy, telephones, trivia, transhumanism and tongue vision, it ultimately leads to the question: what counts as ‘me’?
- 1. Quiz Time:
- 2. Extended and Unextended
- 3. Extension of Mind
- 3.1 First aspect: physical extension
- 3.2 Second aspect: interactive extension
- 3.3 Third aspect: conscious extension
- 4. Third Aspect: Max Velmans’s Reflexive Monism
- 5. Third Aspect: Rupert Sheldrake and Telephone Telepathy
- 6. First Aspect: Transhumanism
- 7. Second Aspect: Andy Clark and the Extended Mind
- 7.1 Cognition in the outside world
- 7.2 The mind exploits resources wherever they are
- 7.3 Language as an extension of mind
- 7.4 Otto and Inga
- 8. What use is it all?
- 8.1 The World as its Own Model
- 8.2 Sensorimotor Interdependency
- 8.3 Sensory Substitution
- 8.4 Plasticity
- 9. Conclusions
- 9.1 Layers of Mind
- 9.2 What is ‘me’?
- 9.3 Extended Intelligence
- 10. Bibliography
- 11. Future Directions
- 12. Endpiece: On a Lighter note
Let’s start with a quick quiz (answers at bottom)…
Q1. How many Presidents of the USA have there been in between Kennedy and Obama?
Q2. What is 1321 multiplied by 121?
Q3. Which great opponent of Cartesian dualism resists the reduction of psychological phenomena to a physical state and insists there is no point of contact between the extended and the unextended?
And a bonus point, for the prize of a blow on the head this evening: where did that last question come from?
A3. Henri Bergson, 1859 – 1941
I’ll refer back to these quiz questions during the talk, starting with the Bergson question…
2. Extended and Unextended
The Bergson question talks of the ‘extended’ and ‘unextended’ and Cartesian Dualism. Descartes maintained that there are two kinds of stuff: mind and matter:
- Matter, ‘res extensa’, ‘extended stuff’: it has location and size in 3-dimensional space.
- Mind, ‘res cogitans, ‘thinking stuff’ is not located in (and hence there is the prospect that it can exist after the death and destruction of the body matter).
Descartes famously said the point of contact between mind and matter was at the pineal gland – small rice grain sized feature near the centre of the brain.
In the modern world, dualism still holds a powerful sway over many, but not among philosophers and cognitive scientists. The modern view is that mind arises – somehow – from the brain. And not a small part of the brain like the pineal gland. Maybe not all the brain but a significant part of it.
So: what is the extension of my mind?: It occupies a space less than 1300 cubic centimetres.
3. Extension of Mind
This talk explores ideas in which minds are not confined to within the volume inside our skulls and gets extended to occupy a larger space.
There are three aspects of the extension of mind I’d like to look at:
3.1 First aspect : Physical extension
The first is the most obvious. Think of a way that a house can have an extension built onto it. So: this mobile phone is always carried around close to me. Imagine the phone is connected to my head with electrodes. You ask me ‘How many Presidents of the USA have there been between Kennedy and Obama’, I strain my brain, I just don’t know my presidents, the information just isn’t there. But, no matter: the phone detects this, goes off to Wikipedia to look up the info and pops the answer back in my head.
This is obviously very far-fetched, in the realm of science fiction. But only half of it is science fiction…
Back in February, an IBM computer called Watson (incidentally, storing an entire copy of Wikipedia, among other info) competed in the US game show ‘Jeopardy!’ and beat the two best ever contestants. So a computer answering trivia isn’t the problem. A computer answering trivia in a human speech context is no longer a problem. Displaying human-like intelligent behaviour is not a problem. The problem is in the interface between the electrodes and the brain: the detection and insertion of specific thoughts / meanings. That is a very long way off.
That leads us on to…
3.2 Second aspect: interactive extension
A less scientifically fantastic but more philosophically interesting view: the phone is part of my mind already – now – without any wires. Or rather, part of my “Extended Mind”, which is an idea of some philosophers such as Alva Noë and, particularly, Andy Clark.
Why bother with messy electrodes when you can just talk to your phone and it can talk back? The software running on the IBM computer will find its way to mobile devices eventually. But even without it, I can still use my fingers to get the US Presidents Wikipedia page up on the screen, and then use my eyes to get information into my brain. This is a lot less sinister than brain implants.
3.3 Third aspect: conscious extension
Is ‘mind’ really confined to the space within my skull, anyway? The idea is that my consciousness extends out in space to include this phone, merely by looking at it.
That might sound bizarre but the philosopher Max Velmans argues that it is a return to common sense. After all, why is it that the first-person sensation of touching the phone when I pick it up – feels there, out in space, not here in my head? In Velman’s theory of ‘reflexive monism’, senses received in the brain are reflected back to their origin and through this they become conscious
Let’s look at these three aspects in more detail…
4. Third Aspect: Max Velmans’s Reflexive Monism
In ‘Understanding Consciousness’, Velmans presents his doctrine of ‘reflexive monism’:
- ‘monism’ – not dualist. Consciousness arises (somehow) in the physical world.
- ‘reflexive’ – senses received in the brain are reflected back to their origin. It is through this that they become conscious.
This is all very interesting but:
- there is no time to go into detail here, and
- I fail to see what use this hypothesis has.
I am more inclined towards the more conventional notion that the brain learns to project attention to the source e.g. if I cut my finger, my attention is directed to my finger, not the neurons within my brain that are firing as a result. I feel pain in my finger not in my brain. If we had any ancestors that felt pain in their brain, they would have ignored their fingers and bled to death.
The projection of attention and feeling is learnt. We build a notion of space and how space works for us during our infancy (this is the adult Kant’s a-priori analytic knowledge – a-priori for anyone past the infant stage, that is) – this has been called ‘body babbling’. This notion of space combined with direct access to the world through our senses gives us a construction of what is ‘out there’.
5. Third Aspect: Rupert Sheldrake and Telephone Telepathy
Rupert Sheldrake seems to have a very similar notion to Velmans’s and also talks of a ‘morphic field’ around us (I’m imagining something like the Ready Brek glow?) and this has led him to conduct scientific experiments on telepathy – particularly telephone telepathy. This led to a TV documentary on him which involved the Nolan Sisters making phone calls to one another and they had to guess who was on the line whilst the phone was still ringing. Sheldrake has shown that normally, such guesses are no more successful than chance (25% with 4 callers) but that this rises to over 40% when the people know one another very well – such as with the Nolan’s – statistically significant. The Perrott-Warrick project that funded this work came to an end in 2010 but I’m not aware of any fanfare of results. Why I’m mentioning this is that, if valid, it would clearly show that mind does somehow reach beyond the limits of skin and skull and that the idea was useful.
6. First aspect: Transhumanism
The first aspect is about making a physical connection to brains to extend cognitive capability. This is a world of cyborgs, the bionic man and what is called ‘transhumanism’.
Kevin Warwick, just down the road at the University of Reading, is an evangelist of transhumanism and has performed a number of publicity stunts including, for example, him and his wife having electrodes implanted into themselves so that they can have telepathic communication (and who said romance was dead?). But on the serious side, he has also been involved in deep brain stimulation work at the John Radcliffe hospital in Oxford to help people manage with epilepsy and Parkinson’s disease.
Francis Fukayama has described transhumanism as the world’s most dangerous idea and people are generally fearful of the prospect of this ‘human enhancement’. People generally have no problem with intervening with technology to restore/repair lost faculties – for example, with cochlear implants – but are against enhancements to make us super-human.
But we already are super-human compared with our ‘natural’ state. If we just consider transhumanism as augmenting human existence with technology, we do this all the time anyway – look at all the technology around us. This leads us onto the second aspect of the extension of mind…
7. Second Aspect: Andy Clark and the Extended Mind
This second aspect, where mind is extended by interaction with the world, is the main event of the talk.
Consider the quiz question about US presidents between Kennedy and Obama again. If we know our presidents, we don’t need to look them up on Wikipedia:
- Some people might know, as trivia, that Kennedy was the 35th and Obama was the 44th and so work out by subtraction the answer of 8.
- But most people will need to recall the presidents in order and will use their fingers to help them (“Johnson – Nixon – Ford – …”). We can give full focus of attention on the main task of information recall with the counting task being done out in the world ‘naturally’ – with little effort. The outside world provides additional memory.
7.1 Cognition in the outside world
See the diagram marked ‘brain’ below. There are various parts of the brain interacting with one another. And there’s the motor function ‘M’ controlling the hand which is seen by the eye which feeds back the result to the visual system ‘V’. We use our hands out in the outside world as a memory store and use our eyes to see the result. It is therefore said that cognition loops out into the world. Cognition leaks out of our heads.
This finger counting is an example of an ‘epistemic action’ – it serves only as part of our thinking – rather than normal ‘pragmatic actions’. Fingers are particularly useful for this because we always carry them around with us, but we could use same argument for using the calculator function on a mobile phone – our focus is on the main task not the trivial details of counting or adding.
In this way, we extend our mind – both in capability and in space.
Consider the second quiz question: 1321 x 121.
- It is quite possible to do it in our head. We can use a mental trick. Multiplying by 121 is the same as multiplying by 11 twice over. There is a trick of multiplying by 11 by adding adjacent digits so 1321 becomes 14531 and 14531 becomes 159841 which is the answer.
- But most people will use a different cognitive trick – long multiplication. Intermediate results are stored as pen marks on paper. It’s just another trick – it just happens to use the outside world for memory storage.
7.2 Mind exploits resources wherever they are
Often it is quicker, more reliable and less strenuous to use an external trick than to use an internal trick. Psychological testing has demonstrated that we have no preference for using internal cognitive resources over external resources. We will exploit whatever resources are available – whether internal or external.
7.3 Language as an extension of mind
Making notes to oneself is obviously using language – communication in a private sense (communication through time) rather than between people. The social dimension of language is a huge extension of cognitive capability, over and above the extension possible for an individual and beyond the scope of this talk.
7.4 Otto and Inga
As with transhumanism, we’re more ready to accept the idea if it is about restoring some lost cognitive function rather than if it is used for enhancement.
So Andy Clark presents his example of Otto and Inga. Both are to meet at a museum at a particular time. Inga knows where it is and just goes there. But Otto suffers from Alzheimer’s and so relies on a notepad to write directions down. Otto is using his notebook as his memory. Both achieve their aim of getting to the museum.
So why claim that some cognitive resource out in the world is not just as much a part of my mind as what is available in the head?
A major problem for me is that there is no outer limit to the extended mind
- There is no clear demarcation between ‘extended mind’ and beyond that.
- There is no clear demarcation between epistemic actions and pragmatic actions. E.g. civil engineers designing a bridge may spend many years doing sums in their heads, working on spreadsheets and using CAD (computer-aided design) tools. Ultimately, this all leads up to the pragmatic action of building the bridge. But they could also all be considered epistemic.
(NB: This is a sorites paradox argument.)
Another personal criticism is that the problems being solved externally aren’t natural problems. Consider the 3 quiz questions. Over evolutionary time, there has been no selective advantage for those who can do long multiplication in their head, for example.
8. What use is it all?
So we might ask: ‘What use is it all?’ Whilst the idea of ‘extended mind’ is superficially attractive, I am sceptical about its usefulness.
Clark compares the ‘extended mind’ thesis with Dawkins’s ‘extended phenotype’ idea. This is where, for example, a bird’s nest is just part of the ‘extended bird’ from the point of view of the (selfish) gene. Dawkins says the extended phenotype idea is useful for providing a different perspective – and that’s all. Ultimately, Clark thinks the same way about ‘the extended mind’ and I think that’s right.
For me, it is the some of the ideas that Clark – and Velmans and Noë – draw upon that are more enduring. I’m going to review some of these now…
8.1 Representation and the World as its Own Model
The first is Rodney Brooks’s idea of the ‘world is its own model’, in contrast to the idea of representations.
If you look at the diagram of the mobile phone, below, it shows:
- A computer (CPU), running at 1GHz = 1 billion cycles per second.
- A camera, capturing images at only 25 frames per second (40 million times slower).
- A main memory – running much faster
- and what’s called a ‘cache’ memory – an even quicker local memory store.
When you take a photo on the phone, the image is transferred to memory. As the computer processes the image, parts get copied to cache and then transferred back to main memory. The image in memory is a ‘representation’ of what was seen in the outside world.
But compare this now to us – in the previous diagram of the brain. With us, it’s all massively-connected biological stuff, operating at a frequency of only about 50Hz. Going off to memory may be no quicker than going off to the real world. There’s no need for a copy – a ‘representation’ – of what’s going on in the world. The world is its own representation – or model. Recall that earlier I said that mind will exploit whatever resources are most readily available – whether internal or external.
So the outside world is as immediate to us as our memory.
Our evolution has naturally exploited whatever there already is in the outside world to help us. With hindsight, this ‘world as its own model’ becomes obvious.
8.2 Sensorimotor Interdependence
A second point is about sensorimotor interdependence – how individual senses are connected to one another (I have tried to indicate this with the arrows between the senses on the diagram). The best known example is the McGurk effect of hearing what people mouth with their lips rather than what they actually say (see video below, particularly fast-forward to time 1:24). One new example of interdependence I discovered recently is how, if I cut my finger, merely looking at my finger can actually help reduce the pain. And bringing the finger closer to my eyes to make it larger can help even further! The point here is that the coordination of senses plays an important part in our sense of feeling of what it is like to be (the elusive ‘qualia’). This leads on to…
Video: The McGurk effect
8.3 Sensory Substitution
…the ability to replace one sense with another. For example, there is the Tactile-Visual Sensory Substitution work of the neuroscientist Paul Bach-y-Rita that enables blind people to see. A camera relays an extremely coarse image to an array of just 12 x 12 electrodes that are just laid flat on a blind person’s tongue. The blind subject can feel tingling sensations on their tongue but they also claim to ‘see’ in some sense. But interestingly the sensation of seeing is much more pronounced if the camera is in some way head-mounted so that the correspondence between ‘seeing’ and the body are the same as would be expected with real vision.
Video: ITN report on Lance-Corporal Craig Lundberg using a BrainPort…
In a way, this is another example of interdependence . This seems to be hinting that consciousness itself arises from such sensorimotor interdependence (that is Alva Noë’s position) but the idea that we learn to project sensation back to its source is more persuasive to me. Interdependence shows how much more is going on between senses than we might have thought.
And when one sense becomes disabled, the brain shows a surprising degree of plasticity (ability of the brain to reconnect) – even in adult brains – to remap redundant parts to other functions. For example, fMRI scans of blind people have shown how parts of their brains normally associated with visual processing have become re-used for hearing.
How might these insights affect our view of the extended mind?
9.1 Layers of Mind
Is ‘extended mind’ really part of mind? It all depends on what we mean by the word ‘mind’ which makes it just a language classification issue. It’s analogous to the problem of the classification of planets back in 2006 which resulted in Pluto being reclassified as a ‘dwarf planet’. Dwarf planets are not real planets, despite sounding like they are from the name. That’s one interpretation.
An alternative perspective is to go in the opposite direction. Instead of trying to make mind more than the brain we can think of it as much less than the brain. Looking at the brain diagram again, we can view it as:
- Inner core ‘mind’: The ‘little man inside our heads’ – a homunculus (of the acceptable, Dennett, variety). the seat of consciousness, emotion etc.
- Outer core: our sensorimotor functions and our memory.
- The entire external world: the realm of the so-called ‘extended mind’, providing extensions to our senses, our limbs and our memory.
I have said that the outer core’s sensorimotor functions are surprisingly plastic. But then the external world is far more malleable than that. (See how I can move my phone from A to B just like this. Look around you at how we have changed the natural world.)
9.2 What is ‘me’?
Notice how the inner core is just the homunculus without memory. Memory is provided in the outer core or the outside world – whichever is more convenient. This is different from Descartes’s view of mind which included memory. A separated mind with an afterlife doesn’t make sense if we can’t take our memory with us.
But memory – whether internal or external – seems to be an essential part of us – more than our bodies. If given a choice between having a finger cut off and having a substantial part of my memory removed, I’m inclined to lose my finger. If Otto is given a choice between losing his finger or his notebook he may well make the same choice. (In contrast, the legal system judges the stealing of notebooks and fingers differently .)
And it seems natural to think of things done by me (whether epistemically or pragmatically) out in the external world are also part of ‘me’:
- An artist might regard his creations as part of him.
- Richard Feynman asserted that his scribblings in notebooks were actually a part of his thinking, not just an historical record of it.
9.3 Extended Intelligence
But we need to value ourselves as something beyond just memory – mere information storage machines – particularly now in an age where information is available so cheaply and easily.
We shouldn’t pride ourselves on what we know – that is, know directly – what we have inside our heads. General knowledge quiz shows (like ‘Jeopardy!’) are really just freak shows – particularly now with computers such as IBM’s Watson around. Instead, we should be trying to increase our ‘extended intelligence’ – our ability to ‘think’ out in the external world, to consciously exploit its cognitive resources rather than just use what’s in our heads.
For example, IBM didn’t develop Watson to compete in game shows – that was just a publicity stunt – but for applications – initially for healthcare. In the West, this is being promoted as purely to assist doctors, not making them redundant. But in the Third World it offers the prospect of allowing many trained nurses to access medical expertise as an alternative to the high cost of training (and retaining) doctors.
This is an example of ‘Intelligence Amplification’ (‘IA’), just as using tools such as hammers and JCB diggers are examples of ‘action amplifiers’.
- Andy Clark and David Chalmers, “The Extended Mind”
- Andy Clark, “Supersizing the Mind”
- Alva Noe, “Out of Our Heads”
- Max Velmans, “Understanding Consciousness”
11. Future Directions
Leads on to:
- Rodney Brooks: subsumption, Libet’s half-second and Free Will.
- How we use knowledge in the 21st Century (how we should act).
- Embodiment: Vilayanur Ramachandran.
12. Endpiece: On a Lighter note
Someone else’s take on Andy Clark’s ‘Extended Mind’: a comment on Youtube has acclaimed this as the greatest philosophy video of all time. I’m inclined to agree…
A philosophy joke (at the expense of the ‘Extended Mind’ thesis):
Q: I say, I say, I say, why did the pencil think 2+2=4?
A: Because it was coupled to a mathematician.
The relevant Monty Python sketch script…
Bonus: The Monty Python: ‘Live at Drury Lane’ ‘Spot the Brain Cell’ sketch…
Quizmaster… Well now Madam, your first question for the blow on the head this evening is:
Which great opponent of Cartesian dualism resists the reduction of psychological phenomena to a physical state and insists there is no point of contact between the extended and the unextended?
Ratbag: I don’t know that.
Quizmaster: Well — have a guess!
Ratbag: Oh… Henri Bergson?
Quizmaster: …is the correct answer! (Piano chords)
Ratbag: Ooh, that was lucky. I never even heard of him.