It Ain’t All in the Head

by Lauri Calonius

There is a growing interest in the idea that cognitive processes are not solely confined in the head and explained simply in terms of brain processes. The type of body we possess and the natural and cultural environment we are surrounded by are taken more into account in the explanations of cognitive phenomena such as memory and problem solving tasks.

In my thesis It Ain’t All in the Head: Situating Cognition to the Body and the Surrounding World, four different approaches to cognition that conceive it in this bodily and/or worldly situated way are looked into. More specifically “embodied-embedded cogntion”, “enactive cognition”, “extended cognition” and “distributed cognition” are compared and contrasted with each other and the more orthodox “brain-bound” conception.

In addition, critique towards the more unorthodox positions is examined, but which ultimately ends up leveling the ground between the unorthodox and orthodox positions. Thus highlighting the viability of the positions that credit more role for the body and the world in explaining cognitive phenomena.

Finally, the issue of cognitive agency (i.e. what elements of the body and the world may be said to be responsible for a given cogitive property or process) is also examined in the light of these different approaches.

The main goal of the thesis then is to elucidate different positions that depart from the traditional brain centered conception of cognition and draw out the similarities as well as the differences between the approaches.

Moreover, even if these approaches still remain distinct without a clear unified conception of cogntion there could be said to be a kindling of an emerging paradigm that could be applied to other interesting philosophical questions such as the issue of cognitive agency.

The take-home message from the thesis is that even if the liberation of cognition from the confines of the head is a complex issue, being open to this kind of possibility will nevertheless bring forth new and interesting ways of understanding cognitive phenomena.

You can read the entire thesis here.


So What on Earth is Extended Mind?

Extended Mind is not just a nice brand name for a task manager or another note taking app. We are very serious about the fact that certain mental operations such as workflow management and declarative memory can be externalized. This will change the way you think.

The original argument stems from Andy Clark’s and David Chalmers’ awesome 1998 paper called – that’s right – “The Extended Mind”. In that paper the philosophers Clark and Chalmers asked a simple question: if an activity, such as recollection, that is typically thought of as mental involves an external component such as a notebook, is the external bit then a part of the mental activity? Clark and Chalmers answer with a resounding yes. We agree.

We really still don’t know what exactly the mind is. But we do know a lot about how it works.

We know that the brain has a lot to do with the way the mind works. Certain areas of the brain light up with certain thoughts and actions. But the thoughts and actions are not in the brain. They just coincide with brain activity. Much like if you move your hand, the movement is not in your brain, even if the motor cortex always lights up about the same way when you move the hand.

So we can show that mental function correlates with the brain. Likewise, we can show mental function correlates with the tools you use. If you have stuff stored on your smartphone, you simply remember things better than if you didn’t have. And if you have a task list, you are simply more effective than if you didn’t have one.

But the mind is a funny thing. It’s not just one thing, but at least two.

There is the intuitive, non-conscious System 1 of your mind that does most of the hard work. And then there is the reflective, conscious System 2 that does the thinking part.

The former can process a whopping 11.2 million bits of information per second. No wonder that things just pop into your head. The latter, in turn, can only process a meager 40 bits per second, that is three or four things at a time. Again, no wonder it’s so damn hard sometimes to dig things up from your mind. You just know that you know – but you cannot for the love of it recall what is it exactly that you know.

This we want to change.

There are three development goals we have set for the Extended Mind.

We want it to be simple. The 40 bits of your reflective mind are easily distracted by whatever is on the screen. So we’ll put only what you need on the screen.

We want it to be fast. It’s not much of a substitute for mental function if it takes ages to boot. Access times to whatever is on your Extended Mind should be less than ten seconds; comparable to what it normally takes to refresh your biological memory. (We actually tested this on Trivial Pursuit.)

And we want it to be focused. Most software have so many features that the ones you most typically use get lost amidst them. We’ll include only what you most typically need. This means the Extended Mind will have only about 5% of the features the other available apps. But those 5% we’ll do really well.

Your biological mind is great at being creative, at understanding emotions, creating connections and feeling deep. But it sucks at storing and organizing things.

The digital tools in turn are not that awesome with feelings. But they are great at focusing your attention, at organizing a whopping amount of data and at storing stuff so that you can return to it ten years from now.

That is, unless the software you use gets in the way of what you want to get done.

So this is our vision:

Let’s leave the storing to the digital mind so that the biological mind can focus on the feeling and the creating. And let’s have the two work seamlessly together.

Only the essential, with no bells and whistles.

Just your mind, extended.

Sign up for beta here.