Cognise Better with an Extended Mind

Ages ago I promised that I’d explain why psychology should pay more attention to the Extended Mind Hypothesis (the idea that minds are ‘hybrid brain-body-environment entities’). (Warning: I’ll be using a lot of scare quotes here – that’s my way of promising to unpack these ideas later on). Anyway, here goes …

Think about how you do the following:

  1. Work out the average cost of a meal with friends at a restaurant so everyone pays the same amount.
  2. Count a series of dots like this one ………………………………………………………………
  3. Shop for the weekly groceries at the supermarket and remember to get everything that you need.
  4. Complete a jigsaw puzzle.

What you don’t do, in any of these situations, is sit down and produce an ‘answer’ by simply ‘thinking in your head.’

  • When we do restaurant arithmetic we make use of pen and paper or a calculator. Even when we ‘calculate in our heads’ we rely on imagining ourselves using ‘external tools’ such as doing place arithmetic or inspecting our mental abacus – could we even begin to do mental arithmetic if we were not used to creating and communicating with physical symbols?
  • When you count the dots you use your hands (or a pointy object) to change your perceived environment – you might point to each dot in turn and count as you go (the pointy thing is used to track your position) or you might use your fingers to create a window of a set number of dots and count the windows.
  • When you go shopping you often write a shopping list and consult it as you collect your items – if the list is long you might cross items off the list as you go. Even if you forget to take your list with you there seems to be some residual benefit of having written the list in the first place – a benefit that you probably can’t get any other way (such as mentally rehearsing what you think you’ll need). And, perhaps even more importantly, there is the question of how we ‘use’ the layout of the supermarket itself to help us remember as we shop (and how the supermarkets use the same layout to try and influence our memory-related decisions – it’s remarkable that retailers pay so much more attention to the distributed nature of human cognition than many cognitive psychologists do!).

So why do we do these things? Why do we lean on and manipulate our environments (including our bodies) so often when we cognise? Usually we do these things because it helps us to cognise better. Often manipulating our bodies and environments allows us to achieve things that would be impossible with our naked brains (and I think this applies to some pretty simple, everyday cognitive tasks not just complex ones like writing a book). These strategies and processes help us to remember things (lists of shopping items, using written place arithmetic to keep track of ‘carried numbers’ so that we can use algorithms with large numbers), to selectively attend to and track the appropriate part of the environment (that’s why we point at things as we count them), and remind us what order to do things in. When we ‘free up mental capacity’ by offloading cognitive tasks onto the environment, we can use these freed up resources to do other things. Often this makes what would be impossible possible.

When we think, perceive, and act in our everyday lives we regularly make use of our bodies and our environments in order to achieve our goals. This use of ‘things outside our skulls’ isn’t simply a neat trick we’ve come up with that complements our ‘real’, in-the-head cognitive abilities (the ones that proper cognitive psychologists are supposed to study). It is fundamental to human cognition (but not just human cognition – however, humans have taken this to an extreme. In the words of Kim Sterelny we are epistemic engineers par excellence). In fact, ‘just doing something in your head’ is actually an extraordinarily uncommon activity (and when we do ‘do things in our head’ this is often a hard won achievement that builds on our earlier ability to ‘do things in the world’). Our brains form part of complex, fluid, distributed systems for achieving cognitive goals. Rob Wilson and Andy Clark (2009) refer to these as TECS (transient embodied cognitive systems). If we really want to study cognition we need to study TECS and not pretend that our experiments give us insight into true (between-the-ears) cognitive processes.

So much for the polemic. No doubt many read these kinds of claims and are assailed by an inner chorus of “but … but … but”s. There are lots of possible objections that can be raised against an embodied/embedded position and many of them are good ones – many of them get to the heart of the matter and draw on some quite abstract and theoretical ideas (such as the representational/computational theory of mind, the notion of intrinsic intentionality, and the conceptual asymmetry of neural and non-neural cognitive resources). The good ones deserve attention and a response or three. I’ll have a look at some of these in future posts.

Wilson, R. A., & Clark, A. (2009). How to situate cognition: Letting nature take its course. In M. Aydede & P. Robbins (Eds.), The Cambridge Handbook of Situated Cognition (pp. 55-77). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

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