Extending the Mind

Eleven years ago, the philosophers Andy Clark and David Chalmers made a bizarre claim: our minds were not limited to our brains, but extended out of our heads to encompass many things beyond us, from notebooks to hammers to language. I have been vaguely aware of their “Extended Mind Hypothesis” for a while now, but it wasn’t until I got a copy of Clark’s latest book, Supersizing the Mind: Embodiment, Action, and Cognitive Extension, that I spent some time getting to know it better. And as counterintuitive as it may be at first, it makes a fair amount of sense when you take a look at the results of recent experiments on real minds.

The original paper was, in hindsight, marvelously forward-thinking. I’m sure at the time it seemed like little more than a thought experiment. But today, when so many of us spend our days melded to computers or cell phones, relying on the Internet to organize our lives and answer our questions, the Extended Mind takes on a fresh urgency

There are plenty of people lamenting that all these machines and networks are crippling our minds. There are certainly good ways and bad ways to interact with our machines, but I have a hard time takng most technology Cassandras seriously. They have a comforting notion of how the mind works, but it’s not very useful for making sense of experiments scientists have run to learn about how our brains change dynamically as we invent and use new tools.

In my Brain column this month, I explore the Extended Mind, and what it means for us today. Check it out.