The Theory Of The Extended Mind: Psyche Beyond Our Brain

Extended Theory of Mind

It is well known that the term “mind” refers to the set of cognitive processes, that is, consciousness, thinking, intelligence, perception, memory, attention, etc. But does the mind have a material reality? Is it a tangible and concrete entity or space? Or, is it an abstract concept that brings together a series of immaterial experiences?

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

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

Extended Theory of Mind: mental processes beyond the brain?

The theory of the Extended Mind began its formal development in 1998. based on the works of philosopher Susan Hurley, who proposed that mental processes did not necessarily have to be explained as internal processes, since the mind did not only exist within 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, philosophers Andy Clark and David Chalmers published the article “The extended mind” which is considered the founding text of this theory. And a decade later, in 2008, Andy Clark published Supersizing the mindwhich ends up introducing the hypothesis of the extended mind into the debates in the philosophy of mind and cognitive sciences.

From the computational metaphor to the cyborg metaphor

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

The individualistic model and computing

The most classic tradition of cognitive science has taken the metaphor of the computer operating system as an explanatory model of the mind. Broadly speaking, it proposes that cognitive processing begins with inputs (sensory inputs) and ends with outputs (behavioral outputs).

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In the same sense, mental states are faithful representations of the elements of the world, they are produced by internal manipulations of information, and they generate a series of inferences. For example, perception would be an individual and precise reflection of the outside world; and 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 subjects (autonomous and independent of the environment and the relationships with it).

It is a theory that follows the dualist and individualist tradition about reasoning and the human being; whose greatest precursor was René Descartes, who doubted everything except what he thought. So much so that he inherited the now famous “I think, therefore I am.”

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

The mind-brain identity

The above emerges in continuous debate with theories of mind-brain identity, which suggest that mental processes They are nothing more than 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 said organ; Therefore, it can only be understood through the physical laws of nature. Both mental processes and subjectivity thus become an epiphenomenon (phenomena secondary to physical events in the brain).

In this sense It is a theory with a naturalistic approach, and in addition to a cerebrocentric theory, since everything human would be reduced to the action potentials and the physicochemical activity of our neural networks. Among the most representative of these theories is, for example, materialistic eliminativism or neurological monism.

Beyond the brain (and the individual)

Given the latter, 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, about extending the concept of “mind” beyond the individual himself. The latter represents an important break with individualism typical of the most classical cognitive science.

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

This paradigm had already permeated computational hypotheses. However, for the theory of the Extended Mind, mental processes are not only generated within the individual, but outside of it. And they are “functional” states as long as They are defined by a cause-effect relationship with a specific function (relationship that encompasses a set of material elements, even without life of its own).

To put it another way, mental states are the last link in a long chain of causes that, finally, have the effect of said processes. And the other links in the chain can range from bodily and sensorimotor skills, to a calculator, a computer, a watch or a mobile phone. All this while these are elements that allow us to generate what we know as intelligence, thought, beliefs, etc.

Consequently, our mind extends beyond the specific limits of our brainand even beyond our general physical limits.

So what is a “subject”?

The above not only changes the way of understanding the “mind” but also the definition of the “I” (it is understood as an “extended self”), as well as the definition of one’s own behavior, since it is no longer 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 to be radical and active determinism. It is no longer that the environment shapes the mind, but that the environment is part of the mind itself: “cognitive states have a broad location and are not limited by the narrow border of the human body” (Andrada de Gregorio and Sánchez Parera, 2005).

The subject It is susceptible to being constantly modified by its continuous contact with other material elements.. But it is not only 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 about it this way, it is essential that conditions such as automation and accessibility exist.

To exemplify 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 loss, the subject writes down everything that seems important to him in a notebook; to the point that, automatically, he gets used to reviewing this tool in the interaction and resolution of everyday problems.

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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, they establish a cognitive system.

The latter opens up 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 theory of the Extended Mind has been questioned precisely for not offering concrete answers to this.

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

Are we all cyborgs?

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

In fact, the term “cyborg” is an anglicism that means “cybernetic organism.” But the theory of the Extended Mind is not the only one that has allowed us to reflect on this question. In fact, a few years before the founding works, in 1983 the feminist philosopher Donna Haraway published an essay called Cyborg Manifesto.

Broadly speaking, through this metaphor I intended 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). ).

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

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