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The Extended Mind Theory: psyche beyond our brain

The Extended Mind Theory: psyche beyond our brain

May 20, 2023

It is well known that the term "mind" refers to the set of cognitive processes, that is, to consciousness, thought, intelligence, perception, memory, attention, and so on. But does the mind have a material reality? Is it an entity or a tangible and concrete space? Or is it an abstract concept that groups a series of immaterial experiences?

The philosophy of the mind, together with cognitive science, have offered different theories to answer these questions. In turn, the answers have often been formulated around the traditional opposition between body and mind. To resolve this opposition, the extended mind theory questions whether it is possible to understand the mind beyond the brain , and even beyond the individual himself.

In the following text we will briefly see what are the proposals of the Extended Mind hypothesis, as well as some of its main antecedents.

  • Related article: "Where is the mind located?"

Theory of the Extended Mind ¿mental processes beyond the brain?

The extended mind theory began its formal development in the year of 1998, from the works of the philosopher Susan Hurley , who proposed that mental processes did not necessarily have to be explained as internal processes, since the mind not only existed between the narrow limits of the skull. In his work "Consciousness in action" he criticized the input / output perspective of traditional cognitive theory.

In the same year, the philosophers Andy Clark and David Chalmers publish the article "The extended mind" that is considered as the founding text of this theory. And a decade later, in 2008, Andy Clark published Supersizing the mind, which ends up introducing the hypothesis of the extended mind in the debates of the philosophy of the mind and the cognitive sciences.

From the computational metaphor to the cyborg metaphor

The theories of the Extended Mind is part of the historical development of the philosophy of the mind and the cognitive sciences. Within this development different theories have emerged about the functioning of mental states and its consequences in human life. We will see briefly what is the latter.

The individualistic model and computing

The most classical tradition of cognitive science has taken the metaphor of the computational operating system as an explanatory model of the mind. Broadly suggests that cognitive processing begins with inputs (sensory inputs), and ends with outpus (behavioral outputs).

In the same sense, the mental states are faithful representations of the elements of the world, are produced by internal manipulations of information, and generate a series of inferences. For example, perception would be an individual and precise reflection of the external world; Y occurs by internal logical order similar to that of a digital operating system .

In this way, the mind or mental states are an entity that is found inside each individual. In fact, it is these states that give us the quality of being subject (autonomous and independent of the environment and the relationships with it).

It is a theory that follows the dualistic and individualist tradition about reason and the human being; René Descartes, whose chief precursor, doubted everything except what he thought. So much so that we inherited the now famous "I think, therefore I am".

But, with the development of science, it was possible to suggest that the mind is not only an abstraction but that there is a tangible place inside the human body for storage . This place is the brain, which under the premises of the computational perspective would fulfill the functions of a hardware, as it is the material and self-configuring support of mental processes.

The mind-brain identity

The above emerges in continuous debate with the theories of the mind-brain identity, which suggest that mental processes they are nothing more than the physicochemical activity of the brain .

In this sense, the brain is not only the material support of mental processes, but the mind itself is the result of the activity of that organ; with which, it can only be understood through the physical laws of nature. Both mental processes and subjectivity thus become an epiphenomenon (phenomena secondary to the physical events of the brain).

In this sense it is a theory of naturalistic approach , and in addition to a brain-centered theory, since everything human would be reduced to the action potentials and the physico-chemical activity of our neural networks.Among the most representative of these theories is, for example, the materialist eliminativism or neurological monism.

  • Maybe you're interested: "Dualism in Psychology"

Beyond the brain (and the individual)

Before this last other theories or explanatory models of the mind arise. One of them is the theory of the Extended Mind, which has tried to locate information processing, and other mental states, beyond the brain; that is, in the relationships that the person establishes with the environment and its objects.

It is, then, to extend the concept of "mind" beyond the individual. This last represents a major break with individualism typical of the most classic cognitive science.

But in order to achieve this it was necessary to begin by redefining both the concept of mind and the mental processes, and in this, the reference model was the functionalist. In other words, it was necessary to understand the mental processes from the effects they cause, or as effects caused by different causes.

This paradigm had already impregnated computational hypotheses. However, for the theory of the Extended Mind, mental processes are generated not only inside the individual, but outside of it. And they are "functional" states while they are defined by a cause-effect relationship with a given function (relationship that includes a set of material elements, even without a life of its own).

To put it another way, mental states are the last link in a long chain of causes that, finally, have these processes as an effect. And the other links in the chain can be from bodily and sensorimotor skills, to a calculator, a computer, a clock or a mobile. All this while it is about elements that allows us to generate what we know as intelligence, thought, beliefs and so on.

Consequently, our mind it extends beyond the specific limits of our brain , and even beyond our general physical limits.

So what is a "subject"?

The above not only changes the way of understanding the "mind" but the definition of the "I" (it is understood as an "extended self"), as well as the definition of the own behavior, since it is not more than a planned action rationally. Is about a learning that is the result of practices in the material environment . As a result, the "individual" is rather a "subject / agent".

For this reason, this theory is considered by many as a radical and active determinism. It is no longer about the environment shaping the mind, but the environment is part of the mind itself: "cognitive states have a broad location and not limited by the narrow border of the human body" (Andrada de Gregorio and Sánchez Parera, 2005).

The subject it is susceptible of being constantly modified by its continuous contact with the other material elements . But it is not enough to have a first contact (for example, with a technological device) to consider it an extension of the mind and the subject. To be able to think in this way it is essential that there are conditions such as automation and accessibility.

To illustrate this, Clark and Chalmers (cited by Andrada de Gregorio and Sánchez Parera, 2005) give as an example a subject who has Alzheimer's. To compensate for his memory losses, the subject points out everything that seems important in a notebook; to the point that, automatically, it is customary to review this tool in the interaction and resolution of everyday problems.

The notebook serves as a storage device for your beliefs, as well as a material extension of your memory. The notebook then plays an active role in cognition of this person, and together, establish a cognitive system.

The latter opens a new question, does the extension of the mind have limits? According to its authors, mental activity occurs in a constant negotiation with these limits. However, the extended mind theory has been questioned precisely because it does not offer concrete answers to this.

Likewise, the theory of the Extended Mind has been rejected by the more focused perspectives in the brain, of which they are important exponents the philosophers of the mind Robert Rupert and Jerry Fodor . In this sense, he has also been questioned for not delving into the terrain of subjective experiences, and for focusing on a vision strongly focused on the achievement of objectives.

Are we all cyborgs?

It seems that the extended mind theory comes close to proposing that human beings are and act like a hybrid species similar to the figure of the cyborg. The latter understood as the fusion between a living organism and a machine , and whose purpose is to enhance, or in some cases replace, the organic functions.

In fact, the term "cyborg" is an Anglicism that means "cybernetic organism" (cybernetic organism).But the extended mind theory is not the only one that allowed us to reflect on this question. In fact, a few years before the foundational works, in 1983 the feminist philosopher Donna Haraway published an essay called Cyborg manifesto.

Broadly speaking, through this metaphor he tried to question the problems of Western traditions strongly based on an "antagonistic dualism", with visible effects on escelialism, colonialism and patriarchy (issues that have been present in some traditions of feminism itself). ).

So, we could say that the metaphor of the cyborg opens the possibility of thinking a hybrid subject beyond the mind-body dualisms . The difference between one and the other is that the proposal of the Extended Mind is inscribed in a tradition closer to logical positivism, with a very specific conceptual rigor; while Haraway's proposal follows the line of critical theory, with a decisive socio-political component (Andrada de Gregorio and Sánchez Parera, 2005).

Bibliographic references:

  • García, I. (2014). Review by Andy Clark and David Chalmers, The extended mind, KRK, Editions, Oviedo, 2011. Diánoia, LIX (72): 169-172.
  • Andrada de Gregorio, G. and Sánchez Parera, P. (2005). Towards a continental-analytical alliance: the cyborg and the extended mind. Colectivo Guindilla Bunda Coord. (Ábalos, H., García, J .; Jiménez, A. Montañez, D.) Memories of the 50th.

Philosophy of Mind 6.1 - The Extended Mind (May 2023).

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