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The Mind-Expanding Ideas of Andy Clark

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The Mind-Expanding Ideas of Andy Clark

The tools we use to help us think—from language to smartphones—may be part of thought itself.

By Larissa MacFarquhar

Where does the mind end and the world begin? Is the mind locked inside its skull, sealed in with skin, or does it expand outward, merging with things and places and other minds that it thinks with? What if there are objects outside—a pen and paper, a phone—that serve the same function as parts of the brain, enabling it to calculate or remember? You might say that those are obviously not part of the mind, because they aren’t in the head, but that would be to beg the question. So are they or aren’t they?

Consider a woman named Inga, who wants to go to the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. She consults her memory, recalls that the museum is on Fifty-third Street, and off she goes. Now consider Otto, an Alzheimer’s patient. Otto carries a notebook with him everywhere, in which he writes down information that he thinks he’ll need. His memory is quite bad now, so he uses the notebook constantly, looking up facts or jotting down new ones. One day, he, too, decides to go to moma, and, knowing that his notebook contains the address, he looks it up.

Before Inga consulted her memory or Otto his notebook, neither one of them had the address “Fifty-third Street” consciously in mind; but both would have said, if asked, that they knew where the museum was—in the way that if you ask someone if she knows the time she will say yes, and then look at her watch. So what’s the difference? You might say that, whereas Inga always has access to her memory, Otto doesn’t always have access to his notebook. He doesn’t bring it into the shower, and can’t read it in the dark. But Inga doesn’t always have access to her memory, either—she doesn’t when she’s asleep, or drunk.

Andy Clark, a philosopher and cognitive scientist at the University of Edinburgh, believes that there is no important difference between Inga and Otto, memory and notebook. He believes that the mind extends into the world and is regularly entangled with a whole range of devices. But this isn’t really a factual claim; clearly, you can make a case either way. No, it’s more a way of thinking about what sort of creature a human is. Clark rejects the idea that a person is complete in himself, shut in against the outside, in no need of help.

How is it that human thought is so deeply different from that of other animals, even though our brains can be quite similar? The difference is due, he believes, to our heightened ability to incorporate props and tools into our thinking, to use them to think thoughts we could never have otherwise. If we do not see this, he writes, it is only because we are in the grip of a prejudice—“that whatever matters about my mind must depend solely on what goes on inside my own biological skin-bag, inside the ancient fortress of skin and skull.”

One problem with his Otto example, Clark thinks, is that it can suggest that a mind becomes extended only when the ordinary brain isn’t working as it should and needs a supplement—something like a hearing aid for cognition. This in turn suggests that a person whose mind is deeply linked to devices must be a medical patient or else a rare, strange, hybrid creature out of science fiction—a cyborg. But in fact, he thinks, we are all cyborgs, in the most natural way. Without the stimulus of the world, an infant could not learn to hear or see, and a brain develops and rewires itself in response to its environment throughout its life. Any human who uses language to think with has already incorporated an external device into his most intimate self, and the connections only proliferate from there.

In Clark’s opinion, this is an excellent thing. The more devices and objects there are available to foster better ways of thinking, the happier he is. He loves, for instance, the uncanny cleverness of online-shopping algorithms that propose future purchases. He was the last fan of Google Glass. He dreams of a future in which his refrigerator will order milk, his shirt will monitor his mood and heart rate, and some kind of neurophone connected to his cochlear nerve and a microphone implanted in his jaw will make calling people as easy as saying hello. One day, he lost his laptop, and felt so disoriented and enfeebled that it was as if he’d had a stroke. But this didn’t make him regret his reliance on devices, any more than he regretted having a frontal lobe because it could possibly be damaged.

The idea of an extended mind has itself extended far beyond philosophy, which is why Clark is now, in his early sixties, one of the most-cited philosophers alive. His idea has inspired research in the various disciplines in the area of cognitive science (neuroscience, psychology, linguistics, A.I., robotics) and in distant fields beyond. Some archeologists now say that when they dig up the remains of lost civilizations they are not just reconstructing objects but reconstructing minds. Some musicologists say that playing an instrument involves incorporating an object into thought and emotion, and that to listen to music is to enter into a larger cognitive system comprised of many objects and many people.

“Why, I think he’s trying to impress you.”

Clark not only rejects the idea of a sealed-off self—he dislikes it. He is a social animal: an eager collaborator, a convener of groups. The story he tells of his thinking life is crowded with other people: talks he’s been to, papers he’s read, colleagues he’s met, talks they’ve been to, papers they’ve read. Their lives and ideas are inextricable from his. His doors are open, his borders undefended. It is perhaps because he is this sort of person that he both welcomed the extended mind and perceived it in the first place. It is clear to him that the way you understand yourself and your relation to the world is not just a matter of arguments: your life’s experiences construct what you expect and want to be true.

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https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/04/02/the-mind-expanding-ideas-of-andy-clark

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