There’s a great new article on the extended mind, titled, “How Google Is Making Us Smarter“, in Discover Magazine’s latest issue. You should definitely check it out.

The theory of the extended mind suggests that the mind is not contained exclusively ‘inside’ the skull, but rather that it extends into the external environment. While our mind can use the structure of our brain to store information, it also uses other structures in the outside world for cognitive functioning too. The classic example for this is the use of notepads or chalkboards as extended memory. To aid in the memorization of things, like classroom lessons or a friend’s phone number, we often utilize records stored on chalkboards or cell phones to remind us later of the information. According to this theory, the mind is intricately connected to its external environment through this kind of cognitive scaffolding. In fact, this externalism is necessary for real time, efficient action in the world. It bypasses the problem of an information bottleneck that would hamper real time cognitive processing if we had to store all of the relevant information about the world internally.

The article in Discover debunks the old myth that increasingly useful technology is making us dumb and lazy because it lessens the burden on our own brains. Rather, technology like the internet is making us smarter, because it is increasing our capacity to network with the extended world.

The theory of the extended mind was first proposed by philosophers Andy Clark and David Chalmers in a short essay aptly titled “The Extended Mind” in 1998.

According to a recent New York Times article, military pilots of unmanned Predator drones, who operate the drones from Las Vegas, over 7,500 miles away from where the drones are flying, experience more fatigue than actual pilots flying manned planes. The reason? Sensory isolation.

Since drone pilots operate remotely, they rely entirely upon cameras mounted on the planes to guide the planes through their environment. Unlike pilots who fly manned planes, who are embodied in the very situation that they’re operating within, drone pilots experience “significantly increased fatigue, emotional exhaustion and burnout”, according to the article. This overwhelmingly showcases the importance of taking into account the embodiment of perception and awareness.

Perhaps due to the predominance of a disembodied paradigm, these results may seem anti-intuitive. Shouldn’t the pilots who operate remotely, thousands of miles from harms way, have it easy? It turns out that reliable, healthy perception and cognition rely heavily upon sensory cues which can’t be abstracted from the conditions of lived, physical embodiment. Basically, it’s difficult to perceive the environment unless you’re actually in it.

That’s a powerful lesson. Understanding perception, or building a computer or robot which perceives, necessitates embodying the subject into the environment.

Andy Clark

Andy Clark

Andy Clark is currently a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, where he is also Chair in Logic and Metaphysics. Previously, he was director of the Cognitive Science Program at Indiana University in Bloomington.

His extensive publications on embodied cognition, connectionist neural networking and cognitive science have made him one of the key figureheads in the field, which he has helped to popularize and make accessible. This includes the keystone book, Being There: Putting Brain, Body and World Together Again, as well as Natural Born Cyborgs and Supersizing the Mind: Embodiment, Cognition and Cognitive Extension. He has also written a fabulous introduction to the philosophy of cognitive science, titled Mindware. You can access a list of his publications, and you can view many of them too, from his page at the University of Edinburgh.

Clark might be classified as an anti-representationalist, believing that mental representations are not detailed internal constructions of the world, as in a Cartesian theater, but rather that cognition is constructed by the world. That is, the world acts as cognitive scaffolding, and cognition is constructed through an intricate environmental interplay between mind, body and world. Clark’s position is typically referred to as the theory of the extended mind.

He also anticipates the development of cognitive prosthetics, electronic enhancements to aid the integration of the human mind with technology.

Rafael E. Núñez

Rafael E. Núñez

Rafael E. Núñez is a professor of cognitive science at the University of California, San Diego. He is, of course, a major proponent of embodied cognition and his monumental work, Where Mathematics Comes From: How the Embodied Mind Brings Mathematics into Being, written with George Lakoff, has revolutionized the understanding of mathematical cognition.

The publication essentially debunks the romantic Platonic myth that mathematics is transcendent, that mathematical knowledge is an ideal view of ultimate reality, and that reasoning is logical and that logic is mathematical.

His vast interdisciplinary interests also include cognitive linguistics, neuroimaging, conceptual metaphor, the empirical study of spontaneous gestures, as well as field research investigating spatial construals of time in the Aymara culture of the Andes.

He is also the director of the Embodied Cognition Laboratory at UCSD.

Michael L. Anderson has put together a nice field guide to embodied cognition (PDF) which you can access online by following that link.

Centrally, the article outlines that the field of embodied cognition is:
(1) Starkly opposed to Cartesianism.
(2) Denies the conceptual divide between humans and animals, reconnecting our conception of humanity to an evolutionary continuum.
(3) Against cognitivism, or the view that cognition is rule-based manipulation of symbols.
(4) In favor of the view that intelligence emerges from situated, active integration within an external environment and context, rather than primarily within the internal confines of an individual brain or enclosed entity.
(5) On the cutting edge of artificial intelligence design, as well as showing immense potential in enhancing human intelligence through computation.



Need a last minute holiday shopping idea for the ultimate gadget geek? Does your loved one obsess over embodied cognition or robotics, or just have trouble keeping their floor or gutters clean?

iRobot might just be the perfect gift. Co-founded by embodied robotics guru Rodney Brooks, the iRobot store has an arsenal of high tech robots, based upon an embodied, bottom-up programming approach (the stuff that works well!), all of which make your life at home that much easier. There’s Roomba, a handy vacuuming robot; Scooba, who specializes in floor washing; Dirt Dog for sweeping; Verro will clean your pool; and Looj, for the grimiest job of them all: cleaning out your backed-up gutters.

There are also communication robots, like ConnectR, which is basically like a mobile webcam, and there are research & education robots too, for the burgeoning roboticist.

Full on robot maids may still be a long way off, but these have got to be the next best thing.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961) was a French philosopher and phenomenologist. He continues to be credited as the most influential figure in the development of a philosophical understanding of the importance of the body and corporeality.

His most central work in this regard is The Phenomenology of Perception. Through a phenomenological examination of perception, Merleau-Ponty argued for the significance of the body in perception and conception, which was in opposition to Cartesian dualism– the view that there is a fundamental schism between the mind and body.

Merleau-Ponty instead posited that the body is entailed by perception rather than an object of it. Through this discovery, he breaks down the subject/object dichotomy and concludes that the traditional notion of the Cartesian “cogito” must be replaced by what he refers to as the “body-subject”.

His particular brand of phenomenology was influenced by the desire to refute what he viewed to be the two most misguided tendencies within Western philosophy: empiricism, the view that knowledge comes entirely from sense impressions, and idealism, the metaphysical view that the world is constructed from the mind alone. Thus, his work is fundamental in rearticulating the relationship of the mind– or subject, to the world– or to objects. Ultimately, he argued that knowledge must be constituted of practical, lived and active exposure to the world.

Merleau-Ponty was also a trained psychologist, having lectured extensively on child psychology, development and education. Unfortunately, his life was cut short by a sudden stroke at the early age of 53.


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