The term ‘Extended Mind’ was coined by Andy Clark and David Chalmers in 1998. As far as I’m concerned it’s perhaps the most fascinating area of Cognitive Science and Philosophy for designers and makers to know about. This is because it explains how things out there in the real world (a notebook, an iPhone, Google Glass…) can literally form parts of our minds. The best way to start explaining the theory is by way of what philosophers call a ‘thought experiment’. Here we go:
We’re now pretty sure that all of our conscious experiences and thoughts, problem solving etc. exist in goings on in our brains and nervous systems. Neuroscientists have defined a lot of specific brain areas and neural networks in terms of their cognitive functions, such that we know, in some cases, which neurons and collections of neurons are involved in specific cognitive processes. Imagine then, that neuroscientists have identified one neuron in your brain specifically, which needs to fire every time you see something red, in order for you to be able to distinguish it as red and not green. Now imagine that the neuroscientists swapped that neuron out for a man-made version, that worked in exactly the same way. Your experience of the world would now be as it always has been – you would see red as definitely red, and everything would appear normal, but this would all rely on something that is not biological, that was not originally a part of you as an organism. In terms of your cognitive processes – in terms of what your very mind consists of, your normal everyday conception of your self, your conscious experience of reality, you would have to accept that that man-made neuron now is just as much a real part of that as any other part of your nervous system that is biological in base, and has been with you since you started developing in the womb.
Now we start taking more ‘extreme’ steps. Imagine the same scenario, but with a whole section of your brain – perhaps the whole section that deals with recognising people’s faces (I’m not saying that there is one and only one section of the brain that deals with the entirety of this cognitive function, but it is theoretically feasible that all of the neurons that cater for facial recognition, even if they are distributed somewhat around the brain, could be identified). So this whole section of the brain is replaced with an inorganic bit of hardware – silicon and whatever else. From the outside you appear entirely normal, but some of your brain is not biological. To you, you seem normal as well – your mind, your conscious experience, your concept of your self is now partly reliant on this non-biological hardware. It forms a part of your mind as much as any part of your brain or nervous system that you have naturally.
The final step is now to consider tools outside the limits of our bodies. Think first of a smart contact lens, or even something like Google Glass, which projects images into the visual field. Imagine these glasses or contact lenses projected a little symbol on one side of your visual field, as you approached a corner of a building, if someone else wearing the same device was around the corner, out of sight. Imagine wearing these glasses or contact lenses every day for years. That visual experience, of seeing the little symbol, would become just as ingrained a part of your cognitive processes as seeing potholes in the pavement with your eyes, or hearing a bicycle bell around the corner of the building. It would contribute to your current understanding of the state of your physical environment just as seamlessly and just as literally, as ‘pure’ information gained via your senses. These glasses or contact lenses are physical apparatus external of your body. They provide a function that yields information to you as you go about your business of being a person in the world in very much the same way as many of your brain’s cognitive subsystems do. You can now start to see how an external device, given certain criteria, can be seen as literally part of our minds, as much as any part of our brains and nervous systems.
And if Google Glass or smart contact lenses, then why not the notebook of a sufferer of Alzheimer’s disease, used month after month, year after year as an external source of memory? If for that person the notebook is referred to as instinctually, as habitually, as effortlessly as most of us refer to our internal, biological stores of memory then in a sense it also forms part of that person’s mind.
So that, in brief, is the theory of Extended Mind – that the mind need not end at the boundaries of skin and skull. Tools, instrument and other environmental props can under certain conditions also count as proper parts of our minds.
Of course we can note differences. Our brains are biological, our tools are not. Our internal cognitive processes are all interlinked by way of our brain structures and nervous systems, but external tools can only ever give us information by way of our senses (of course this is not true of functional brain implants). The point is that when we think about minds, we are not usually thinking in biological terms, we are thinking in psychological and philosophical terms. Since this is the case it might be quite arbitrary whether something is biological or not, or is situated inside our bodies or heads or not. Functionally, and experientially it makes no difference.
For me, a really interesting and important consequence of this is how it affects how we design things. Once we start viewing the mind as something that can be, and often is extended by way of our tools, we realise that when we design products and tools, we are in fact designing parts of people’s minds. This paradigm shift I want to promote brings with it a host of challenges and difficulties, but also a vast array of rich information and realisations that can help us design better products and tools. Understanding how the mind works, and how best to design things that work seamlessly with other cognitive functions and processes now becomes a powerful framework for designing truly brilliant products and tools.
I’ll be exploring a lot more of this, and more practical design related considerations in future posts. If you want to read something interesting and related now, try out my introduction to Embodied Cognition, which is kind of a way in which we extend our minds using our own bodies.