Mind extended into things

I think better on paper than I do in my head. When I read, I don’t just scan with my eyes but actively annotate with my ever ready mechanical pencil. If I am trying to develop an idea that has many moving parts, I have to write it out in list form and I only see the unifying theme when I can reduce it all to a single synoptic page. My work is very much in my mind when I am sitting at my (admittedly messy) desk, but almost completely out of mind when I am away from it. My mind spills out of my brain and becomes suffused with the things around me and by manipulating those things, I can make discoveries in thought. Here a few thoughts to chew over:

1. My mind is embodied but is located neither solely in my brain nor my body but extended through my tools and material touchstones.

2. ‘We have no power of thinking without signs’ (Peirce) but it makes little difference whether the signs are in my internal imagining or present in the form of external signs. My mind ‘spills out’ into the world.

3. My mind is indeed a whole of some kind, but not a whole in the sense of a delimited thing with size, shape or physical boundaries.

4. A mind is a “form of activity” in the Aristotelian sense. A mind is a “realization of form” in the Platonic sense.

5. The material substrate of this activity is brain+body+prosthetics.

6. I have noticed in some of my older, now deceased relatives, that their minds declined precipitously when they were moved from their homes into a sterilized, hospital-like environment, such as a nursing home. Although there are many explanations for this phenomenon, it is at least consistent with the notion that their minds weakened by age depended on the physical cues in their home environment, that their homes and the ordered stuff were invested with Proustian memory and know-how. They literally lost part of their minds in being displaced.

7. Back when I was a Naval Aviator, I noticed that much of my know-how was “stored” in the physical architecture of the airplane I would fly. If I were removed from the cockpit, procedures that were second nature to me could only be recalled with effort and then only by imagining myself in the cockpit reaching for knobs and switches. Once I was having all kinds of difficulty remembering my call-sign during my radio calls (the sign was always based on the tail-number of whatever plane I happened to be flying). I couldn’t understand the source of my difficulties until I discovered that a piece of electrical tape was partially obscuring an engraved plate that had as its last two digits the specific tail number of the plane. As soon as I removed the tape, my difficulties went away. Until then, I was totally unaware that I relied on this visual cue for knowing my call sign. I always assumed that I had always just remembered it from our initial plane assignment and/or seeing the number on the tail when I approached it. Instead, it seems that my mind outsourced this function from the brain to the environment. Again, there was no conscious strategy on my part.

8. I am reading two books dealing with the issue of technological mind extension: a cyber-punk novel called Accelerando by Charles Stross and a philosophical argument for extended mind called Supersizing the Mind: Embodiment, Action, and Cognitive Extension by Andy Clark. The former, which explored the potential of neural implants, seemed slightly crazy to me until I read the argument of the latter. Here is a link to an essay co-written by Andy Clark and David Chalmers called “The Extended Mind,” the argument of which is the basis of Clark’s book.

9. See this article about a blind climber given a device that allows him to “see” with his tongue. Pretty amazing.

10. See an article about inversion goggles and how the mind fairly easily adapts to a change in data presentation as long as the new presentation is functionally equivalent. It reminds me of how easy it turned out to be for me to adjust to driving on the left-hand side of the road in Japan. My brain found that the American “right” is the equivalent is looking across the car and “left” is equivalent to looking away from the car. After a little while, the translation was effortless.

11. Michael Polanyi’s example of using a hammer or a blind man’s stick as examples of the to/from nature of embodied existence:

The way we use a hammer or a blind man uses his stick, shows in fact that in both cases we shift outwards the points at which we make contact with the things that we observe as objects outside ourselves. While we rely on a tool or probe, these are not handled as external objects. We may test the tool for its effectiveness or the probe for its suitability, e.g. in discovering the hidden details of a cavity, but the tool and the probe can never lie in the field of these operations; they remain necessarily on our side of it, forming part of ourselves, the operating persons. (Personal Knowledge, p. 59)


This is just grist for the mill. Later, I will bring this back to Plato/Aristotle and the ideas that (1) the necessary material of thought is whatever is capable of receiving the governing form, and (2) forms are forms of wholeness that govern activities, including thought.


2 thoughts on “Mind extended into things

  1. Woody, this is a very interesting post. Many of the questions I have been pursuing recently focus on the relationship between cognitive environments, information processing, and heuristic decision-making. A key model underlying this work is the Brunswikian Lens Model. Egon Brunswick suggested that the human organism exploits(in the good sense) the fact that cues can “vicariously function” for each other when they co-vary in actual cognitive environments. If one learns that A and B are highly correlated with each other in a specific environment, one can rely on the presence of A to infer the target (i.e B). The environment, in other words, does some of the work for us. If environments were not “intelligible” but were random, no co-variation would be present in experience, and one could not take advantage of this structure by decreasing cognitive load.

    Btw…I hope you have a restful Easter weekend!

  2. Tillman,
    Thanks for the tip on Brunswick — I will have to check that out. One of the root insights in the Platonic/Aristotelian philosophy is that there is no difference between the logos that the mind uses to think, the logos that we use to communicate and the logos that governs the interactions and relations between things — it is the same logos. (Aristotle makes the astonishing claim in the De Anima that the mind becomes the very thing it things about — same eidos/logos, different matter. Since it is the energetic form that make a thing what it is, when the same form becomes energetic in thought, it is the same thing.) So it really doesn’t matter if the logos is present before the eyes or behind the eyes — it is still thinking. My phenomenology of working a math problem, for instance, is not that I write/manipulate the symbols and then think about them — my thought is tightly bound up with the perception of the symbols without reduplication is some noetic medium.

    In solving a concrete problem, it is usually much easier to “solve” through physical manipulation than through abstract processing. Right now, I am working to get a set of development plans approved for a small construction project. The bureaucrats insist that I provide them a landscaping plan in advance of approval. But I promise you, the best landscape design would happen in the concrete, dragging trees and bushes around, shaping dirt forms, until it just looks right.

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