The Extended Mind

Following Clark Quinn’s hint, I obtained “The Extended Mind” by Annie Murphy Paul.

Her section about “Thinking with the Space of Ideas” was the most interesting one for me — naturally, because the tagline of my own think tool is “Offloaded thoughts, close to your mind”. And it did not disappoint me. It reads like a promotional rationale for why to buy my tool (which you can’t buy because it’s free :-), and in particular, it explains my main point much better than I did: the limitations of trying to do all the thinking within the brain (the “brainbound paradigm”).

There are many passages that I liked very much. For example:

“[T]rue human genius lies in the way we are able to take facts and concepts out of our heads, using physical space to spread out that material, to structure it, and to see it anew.” (Kindle position 2568, bold by me)

I would even say: rearrange it, see it anew, and (then) structure it. Or this one:

“Architects, artists, and designers often speak of a ‘conversation’ carried on between eye and hand” (position 2778)

I think this is a much more powerful dialog than the simulated teacher – pupil dialog of current ‘interactive’ textbooks which merely use questions and answers to keep asynchronous learners awake.

Book cover of "The extended mind".

Of course it is arguable if this kind of thinking should be called “outside” the brain. Even more so in the other sections about “Thinking with…”: other spaces of the Surroundings (Natural and Built ones), or with Bodies (Sensations, Movies, Gesture) or Relationships (Experts, Peers, Groups). The formulation “thinking with” cleverly blends the two senses of “with”: instrumental (using tools), and the other sense sometimes called “comitativus” (accompanied by persons). But the contrast with the “brainbound” paradigm is certainly useful.

The book caused me to consult the SEP entry on Embodied Cognition, where “Extended Cognition” is mentioned as a “Close Relation”. Here, the contrast is against the traditional cognitive science “wedded to computationalism”. To me as a long-time reader of Stephen Downes, the criticism of its “computationally-inspired concepts, including symbol, representation, and inference” is very plausible.

But even more clearly I found parallels of Paul’s book to McGilchrist’s description of the two modes of the brain, for example:

“what researchers call ‘open monitoring,’ or a curious, accepting, nonjudgmental response to all we encounter.” (position 1763)

reminds me of the “broad vigilant attention”, and the cited

“two kinds of attention, wrote James in his 1890 book The Principles of Psychology: ‘voluntary’ and ‘passive.'” (pos. 1751)

remind me of McGilchrist’s “ways of attending” and the intentional focus of what he attributes to the left hemisphere.

With McGilchrist’s descriptions, it sounds very plausible to “see” the offloaded stuff “anew” (see above), because this is what the ‘right hemisphere’ mode can optimally contribute where all new information from the outside world is firstly processed, in contrast to the other mode that is often fed internally by re-presentations. (And McGilchrist himself often uses expressions like “see anew”).

So when the “Extended” and “Embodied” theories rightly criticize the limitations of the brainbound and computational approaches, I wonder if they mostly target the limitations of the ‘left hemisphere’ mode. In this case, it would not be necessary to look for the missed values from beyond in some external locations but rather in the ‘right hemisphere’ and its better contact with the outside world and space and body and and co-humans.

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