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Sunday 26 March 2017

The extended mind

The subject of the mind has been one of the most discussed issues in arts and science. Nevertheless, only a few understand that that thinking may not happen in the brain, being an embodied activity. Perhaps, because since schoolbooks that get the image of the brain mapped into different thinking areas. Even the most innocent games at the playground involve pointing to the head to mean thinking or to the eyes to refer to seeing.

Nevertheless, and although our imagination is so biased since an early age, it is possible that we have learnt it wrong, because according to science, thinking is an embodied activity. Thinking not only engages body and brain, as it may also extend itself into the environment. 

Over the last years, the debate around the mind has been expanded due to the development of the digital culture and its impact onto the brain. Neuroscience has progressed as never before, due to the new technical mediums, such magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) that make it possible to monitor the impact of everyday activities such as writing, drawing, watching TV have onto the brain. Whilst the validity of some of these studies is still to be confirmed, as MRI is a new technique, there is at least a lot of material that feeds our imagination.

The centrality of the brain may have originated on decades of exposure to the postulate of Rene Descartes' Cogito Ergo Sum. The French philosopher imagined the mind as an immaterial element, located in the pineal gland near the center of the brain. According to Descartes, thinking was purely a cerebral activity, an idea that has since objected by my many scientists. One of the most significant contributions was made by the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio who, in his book Descartes’ Error argued that brain is not the sole decision-maker, as the body plays a role in the cognitive process. Damasio conducted clinical studies of brain lesions in patients whose emotions were impaired due to cancer, accidents and other forms of trauma. While these patients measured well in intelligence tests, they were unable to make decisions, in spite of emotional trauma. Thus, this proved that emotions play an important role in the process of making decisions. Besides, the brain integrates the emotions through the nervous system. Thus, body and brain are a coupled system.

Long before Damasio, Henri Bergson had already expressed his disapproval to the same postulate, arguing that the separation between material and spirit was artificial. For Bergson, spirit and material co-exist in the body, being separated in terms of time, not space. In his book Memory and Matter, published in 1908, Bergson distinguishes between two types of memory - automatic and pure. The first one applies to everyday life, when I use information inscribed in the body in order to automatically perform ordinary actions – for instance, learn a song through repetition. Pure memory, on the contrary, is embodied with spiritual value; it happens when I remember a past event, which I am not able to change, but only to contemplate – say: I remember my school days. That is the purest form of memory.
As Bergson points out: "our present is the materiality of life; it is unique for each moment of duration. This is to say that my present consists in the consciousness that I have of my body". On the contrary, the "pure memory, in which each unique moment of the past survives, is essentially detached from life" so that "pure memory is a spiritual manifestation. With memory, we are in very truth in the domain of the spirit’".

Hence, Bergson separates mental from cerebral, and perceives brain and body as an interlocking system, stating:

The first is that in psychological analysis we must never forget the utilitarian character of our mental functions, which are essentially turned towards action. The second is that the habits formed in action find their way up to the sphere of speculation, where they create fictitious problems, and that metaphysics must begin by dispersing this artificial obscurity.

Nevertheless, what some philosophers and scientists have since argued is far more surprising: the mind is not only the body and brain in a coupled system, but some external objects can also be included in it, as long as they are used in the thinking process.

In 1998, Andy Clark and David Chalmers published the article The Extended Mind, which changed common perceptions about this matter. The two authors coined the term active externalism, in which they argue that external objects play a role in the cognitive process, in case they are actively part of it. They refer as an example the case of two hypothetic individuals who want to arrive to the museum. One of them trusts his memory to find the place, whereas the other one, who suffers from Alzheimer, relies on help of a notebook. Thus, in the latter case, thinking occurs outside of the brain, as it is the presence of the notebook that allows the individual to think spatially.

Hence, if in the case of the first individual thinking occurs only in the brain, in the second case, it involves a coupled system – brain + notebook. Hence, the object functions as a hard-drive where the brain stores his piece of information. Nevertheless, this principle only applies if the object is actively used in the thinking process. That means that if another individual sometimes uses his notebook to arrive to a given place – and other times doesn’t, in this case, the object is not part of his mind. It can be seen as an occasional helper, but not as actively part of it. The Parity Principle, coined by Clark and Chalmers, establishes that if an object performs an action that is perceived as mental, then the artifact is part of the mind of the user, even if only for a limited time.

Indeed, such vision is quite interesting if we think on the case of patients who suffer from mentally degenerative diseases, as we know that they are, sometimes, unable to think without helpers. But, the same might happen to ordinary people, when they use objects to think. Clark and Chalmers, again, give as an example the case of the game Scrabble, played by two individuals. The Player One mentally manipulates their letters in order to imagine words to play, whereas the Player Two moves the physical pieces intellectual act, so then, should be the second one, as in both cases it is by imagining and/or using the pieces that the players get their answers. In this sense, thinking occurs on/with the object.

Nonetheless, one might intuitively oppose this idea, because if the objects are part of the mind, the brain is the centre of it, thus, it does not play an equal role. Obviously, objects are not able to generate knowledge by themselves. Moreover, visualisation skills are part of what we perceive to be intelligence, and well-known geniuses are recognised for having enhanced abstraction skills, which did not depend on external factors. On the other hand, it is also common knowledge that external factors play an increasing role in all aspects of contemporary societies, which seem to be more and more volatile, and permeable to change. Thus, perhaps, one needs to change the criteria through which we look at events.

In this context, neuroscience has once more revealed the unexpected capacities of the brain, namely neuroplasticity - the capacity to adapt itself into a new context. The brain’s plasticity occurs in different stages: at the beginning of life, as a consequence of brain injury and in adulthood, and every time we learn something new. Hence, one of the most surprising aspects of neuroplasticity is that, when we become an expert in something (e.g. learn a new language), the area of the brain that has to deal with that skill grows (and the others diminish). As Dr. Luis Lacerda, researcher from the Natbrainlab, who specialises in neuroimaging, clarified in an interview: "There is process called pruning, in which the neurons that are not being used are pruned… But, the volume of the brain is limited; therefore if one part becomes bigger, another one needs to diminish". Moreover, different studies suggest that artistic training may impact the structure of the brain – evidence on this matter was already found in different professions, such as musicians and taxi drivers. As Dr. Luis Lacerda clarifies: "It is proved that there is reorganisation in the brain. Depending on the stimulus – be it visual or audio –- there is a transformation – neuroplasticity. This change happens daily in each of us, but on a small scale. The long-term change that affects the structure of the brain depends on genetic factors, ambient, but usually takes more time to verify".

Thus, it is possible that our perception of what the mind is will change dramatically in the upcoming years, as a consequence of the digital culture. As it happened in the past, in a larger or smaller scale, human nature will change in order to adapt itself to the new environment. Many thinkers today explore this scenario. That is the case of the American researcher Katherine Hayles who, in How do we Think, considers that the mind is not only composed of the brain-body, as a coupled system, it also extends itself in the environment. As she pictures it:

The more one works with digital technologies, the more one comes to appreciate the capacity of networked and programmable machines to carry out sophisticated cognitive tasks, the more the keyboard comes to seem one extension of one’s thoughts rather than an external device on which one types. Embodiment then takes the form of extended cognition, in which human agency and thought are enmeshed within larger networks that extend beyond the desktop computer into environment.

Thus, it seems that we need to update not only our vocabulary, but also our imagination, as it is possible that in the future we may dream of an ideal system rather an ideal human being. In this new super futuristic scenario, it is possible that we will start to walk the streets coupled to our perfect object-brains, creating a new landscape, in which men are no longer more important than an extended universe, composed of atoms, systems and other particularities.

This article first appeared in issue 1 of Imperica Magazine.

 

 

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