The Extended Mind: Old & New

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The New York Times has a column today about the idea that our digital devices–computers, iPhones, and more–represent an extension of the human brain. This “theory of extended mind,” as it’s called, conceptualizes these kinds of technologies as “cognitive prostheses.” The buzzwords might make the idea sound complicated, but it’s actually quite elegant and simple.

Consider: When I was in elementary and middle school, there were no cell phones. I ended up dialing my friends’ home phone numbers so many times over the course of my childhood that the numbers became permanently inscribed in my brain. (I still happen to know some of these numbers, though I haven’t dialed them in years.) But now, I have a cell phone, and with it, an immense list of stored contacts. I almost never have to dial the digits in a phone number anymore, and, as a result, I have no idea what my friends’ numbers actually are. In essence, my brain has outsourced the task of remembering phone numbers to my phone. The device, then, becomes an extension of my mind–an external hard drive to which my brain can offload information.

In any case, it’s a fascinating way of thinking about our digital devices–and, I think, a somewhat more positive one than some of the technology naysayers (ahem, Nicholas Carr)–have been putting forward. But what’s really interesting about it is that if an iPhone can be an extension of the human mind, so can other technologies invented centuries or even millennia ago. Books, for instance. It’s an idea I discussed several years ago with Lambros Malfouris, an archaeologist at the University of Cambridge. I was profiling him for SEED‘s “Revolutionary Minds” series, and we discussed the idea of the extended mind from the perspective of an archaeologist.

The mainstream approach to cognition holds that it happens in the mind and that material culture is nothing more than an outgrowth of our mental capacities. Archaeologist Lambros Malafouris is challenging this deep-seated idea with a radical new notion: the hypothesis of extended mind, which posits that material culture is not a reflection of the human mind but an actual part of it. Take, for instance, a blind man’s stick. “Where does the blind man end and the rest of the world begin?” he says. “You might see the stick as something external, but it plays a very important role in the perceptual system of this person. It extends the boundaries of this human—the stick becomes an integral part of the cognitive architecture.”

If material culture is an extension of human cognition, our engagement with it has actively shaped the evolution of human intelligence, Malafouris argues. For example, ancient clay tablets that allowed people to actually write down records were not mere objects, he says. Instead, they became integral adjuncts of the human memory system. The invention of such a technology “changes the structure of the human mind,” says Malafouris, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Cambridge. Rather than happening wholly in the head, he argues, cognition develops and evolves through the interplay between intelligence and material culture.

Malafouris’s unorthodox view has shaped his approach to his empirical archaeological research, which includes analyses of Paleolithic art, Bronze Age writing tablets, and 21st century neuroprostheses. Indeed, one of his interests involves using the hypothesis of extended mind to understand how future technologies might further sculpt our cognitive processes. He calls this endeavor—which bridges archaeology, cognitive science, neuroscience, anthropology, and philosophy—neuroarchaeology. “A lot of people might still resist the idea of extended cognition and might prefer to see the human brain as the most important component of the human cognitive system,” he says. “But I’m trying to develop a new philosophical approach to how we can study the human mind.”

For more on this provocative idea, see the full column in the Times. It’s worth a read.

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