The Extended Mind

Some strange news needs to be revealed for those wondering »where does thinking occur?«: outside of the brain! No matter how surprising this idea might sound at first, it’s, nevertheless, interesting, and … accurate!

As we had already explained in the article What is the Impact of Drawing on the Brain?, the brain is not the only decision-maker, as the body is also involved in the cognitive process.

Although Rene Descartes imagined the mind as an immaterial element, located in the pineal gland near the center of the brain, many scientists have since objected to this idea. They argue that the mind extends beyond the brain and integrates the body. Indeed, it’s through the body that we experience emotions communicated to the brain through the nervous system. Therefore, the body-brain-complex share the process of decision-making. Some studies [1] in particular show that some patients who suffered from traumatic experiences were not able to make decisions, despite having a healthy brain. This means that while they could score high on an IQ test, their emotional trauma would disable them from making decisions. Therefore, emotions play a role in the decision-making process.

This conclusion is not so surprising for ordinary people, as most individuals have already, at some point, experienced this truth in their own lives, although they weren’t able to prove it scientifically

Nevertheless, what some philosophers and scientists argue 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 the mind, as long as they are used in the thinking process…

In 1998, Andy Clark and David Chalmers published the article [2] 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 spacially.


Thus, 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. 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 an idea 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 to achieve the same result. Thus, if the first action is perceived as an intellectual act, so then should 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.

But, Clark and Chambers were not the only thinkers to believe in this possibility. More recently, Katherine Hayles [3] took this idea further, stating: »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.« For this author, the perception of the brain-body-object as a coupled system extends itself into larger networks that include the environment.

For us, the ordinary citizens, this possibility seems equal parts fascinating and scary…. Because, when we think further on it, some uncomfortable hypotheses start to arise. For instance: if thinking happens outside of the skull, what happens with robots? Do they reproduce human intelligence or create a new pattern by themselves? Are they capable of generating emotions based on values encoded on them? If objects can be part of the mind, the same happens to emotions? Can robots develop emotions? Is it a she or a he – do robots have gender…?

Of course, The Extended Mind theory is not universally accepted, because, although thinking might be an embodied activity, the brain is the center of it. Besides, we know that abstraction/visualization skills are part of what we perceive to be intelligence. Genius such as Einstein (physics) or Paul Erdos (mathematics) had enhanced visualization capabilities, which enabled them to perform complex mental processes without the need of any physical object – not even the pen or paper. Thus, the brain matters!

  1. Jump Up Damasio, Antonio, Descartes’ Error, New York: Avon Books, 1994
  2. Jump Up Published in Analysis 58:10-23, 1998. Reprinted in, p. Grim, ed, The Philosophers Annual, vol XXI, 1998.
  3. Jump Up Hayles, Katherine, How do We Think, Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2012, p. 3