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Extended Mind Thesis

“Where does the mind stop and the rest of the world begin?” That was the question philosopher Andy Clark and cognitive scientist David Chalmers asked at the beginning of their 1998 paper, ‘The Extended Mind’. And it was answering that question that led to this concept.  The Extended Mind Thesis argues that your mind — your ability to perceive, remember, and think — extends far beyond your brain and the conscious ‘voice in your head’. Instead, it posits that your mind is inextricably woven into your body and the world, including the environments and people around you.  We’d say that was ‘mind-blowing’ but that would just confuse the matter further, so let’s take this a step at a time before we get into the many practical implications of the thesis.  YOU THINK WITH YOUR BODY. A good starting point is the notion of embodied cognition or the theory that cognition is shaped by and integrated with the body. There are countless manifestations of this including:  Several studies found that radiologists worked faster and more accurately if they walked while studying images as opposed to sitting.  Our body language will communicate a reaction before it registers in our consciousness — you’ll notice this anytime someone throws something at your head and you flinch before that internal voice (consciousness) has time to ask “what the …?”.  FMRI scans have demonstrated that people with Botox injections have less brain activation in regards to interpreting, modulating and experiencing emotions.  Another study asked participants to remember a time when they were either socially accepted or socially snubbed. Those remembering that they were accepted consistently identified the room temperature as being warmer than those who remembered being snubbed.  Physical gestures used while explaining concepts have been shown to assist the person to reason, not just communicate. So for example, studies have shown that children sitting on their hands had more difficulty in solving mental problems than those able to move freely.  Actors have demonstrated greater retention of their lines when associated with the physical movement of their characters.  And researchers such as Dr Bessel Van Der Kolk have noted that ‘the body keeps the score’ in relation to traumatic experiences which leave a biological imprint both beyond and linked to our consciousness.  Making the shift of perspective from ‘brain-centric thinking’ to ‘you think with your body’ involves exploding the dominant metaphor of seeing brains as computers. Rather than simply processing external information then instructing our body to act, the Extended Mind Thesis points to evidence that brains and bodies work in a complex, dynamic and inextricably linked partnership to perceive, think and decide. YOU THINK WITH THE WORLD.  Once you accept the embodied cognition theory and that you think with your body, it’s only a short and logical trip to embrace extended cognition and accept that you think with the world. Imagine arriving at the shops and struggling to remember the four things you need. If you managed to recall those items from your memory you’d attribute that to your own thinking process. So what’s the difference between recalling that information from memory versus a list in your pocket?  Perhaps an even more transparent case of distributed minds comes from people with Alzheimer's. One of the inspirations for this thesis came from an occupational therapist colleague of Clark who pointed out that her most highly functional Alzheimer patients ‘augmented’ themselves and distributed their thinking across their homes with post-it notes, checklists, and reminders across relevant rooms that allowed them to remember, think and take effective action. Clark points out that, from a perspective of the Extended Mind Thesis, interfering with such houses should raise the same ethical issues as interfering with someone’s brain.  There are many other examples of ‘thinking with the world’, from using a GPS; the way you’ll likely work out an idea by sketching or writing it out; or how you might use a journal or diary to reflect and learn. Interactions with other people are also crucial elements of your environment and cognitive process and the process of conversations have a cognitive element of processing and seeking clarity. In each situation, thinking doesn’t radiate from your brain or even brain/body in a one-way process into the world, instead, it meshes and loops with both your body and the environment.  EMBRACE YOUR LOOPINESS. When talking about the Extended Mind Thesis, Clark has recently made a distinction between consciousness, or that ‘voice in your head’, and the cognitive process. As a result, he seems to primarily apply the Extended Mind Thesis to the cognitive process. In relation to cognition, he applies a parity principle, arguing that if something looks like a cognitive process and is happening outside the head, then it should be assumed to be part of cognition — and part of the mind — until proven otherwise. It’s essentially accepting the cognitive process that happens with your body and environment rather than drawing an arbitrary line around your brain, or even your skin.  Clark describes the process of cognition with these entangled elements as being fundamentally ‘loopy’ and that the ‘loops matter’ as they provide the opportunity for greater understanding and more effective thinking. So, if there was a call to action around this philosophy, we’d argue that it’s to build more effective loops and value the process of using them to greater effect.  This might include taking the time to sense more into your body as part of your conscious cognitive process, particularly for areas where you have experience and your ‘gut’ feeling will likely be helpful as a result. It’s also providing opportunities to be more physical as part of your thinking including going for walks, standing up and so on. Beyond your body, consider how you interact with the environment. What ecosystems, tools and people are you exposing yourself to, and ‘looping in’ to your cognitive process? See the Actionable Takeaways below for more.  IN YOUR LATTICEWORK.  The Extended Mind Thesis can begin to explain the effectiveness of the Method of Loci, which leverages our relatively developed spatial thinking as a memory hack. The ‘thinking with your body’ element of the thesis adds another dimension to our understanding of Focused and Diffuse Thinking, taking diffuse thought beyond simply a subconscious brain-based process to something that is impacted upon by our entire body. Our ‘loopy’ takeaway from the thesis has much resonance with the OODA Loop, and cycling through understanding in an environment, and with the Extended Mind Thesis, we might add an element of ‘checking in with one’s body’ in the Orientation phase. Finally, this thesis adds additional weight to learning methods such as the Feynman Technique which uses communication as part of learning and understanding.

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