The extended mind in science and society
Professor Andy Clark’s concept of the ‘extended mind’ reimagines human thought. It questions the boundary between brain and technology, with profound impacts for society
What was the problem?
Thinking is normally conceived of as happening inside our heads. But what about the tools and structures that help us organise and retrieve information? Previously, we had to remember phone numbers; nowadays we simply look them up. Technology might, therefore, be said to act as a form of external memory.
The extended mind theory says that ‘cognition’ does not just happen in our heads. Just as a prosthetic limb can become part of a body, technology such as computers (or even notebooks) become part of our minds.
Professor Andy Clark worked with David Chalmers in the 1990s. They published the paper ‘The Extended Mind’ in 1998. This paper asked: ‘where does the mind stop, and the rest of the world begin?’.
The extended mind hypothesis has inspired new discussion around the boundaries of what we think of as "human".
What did we do?
Clark has continued to work on the idea of the ‘extended mind’. His 2008 book 'Supersizing the Mind' and 2015 book 'Surfing Uncertainty' have had a wide influence on contemporary philosophy.
The extended mind hypothesis has huge cultural resonance beyond academia. The hypothesis challenges our conceptions of what it is to think, the role of technology in our lives, and how we interact with our surroundings. Clark has used high-profile public talks and media appearances to encourage the public to explore these ideas and to help shape the public discourse around topics such as artificial intelligence and what it is to be human.
Clark’s work says that cognition is not limited to the brain, or even to the body. Objects in the external world can be used in such a way that they become part of the mind itself. In a society ever-more reliant upon computers and internet connectivity, this poses relevant questions about human identity.
What happened next?
Clark's success is the result of collaborative working with a range of partners, and a willingness to present his ideas in numerous events and formats in order to maximise accessibility.
Clark has worked with computer scientists, games designers, and technologists to explore the technical implications of his work.
He is currently a board member of mindware company Cyborg Nest and is also collaborating with Google to explore the future of smart devices and human-machine interactions.
The extended mind hypothesis forces us to reassess our relationship with objects and artefacts and has influenced how cultural organisations like museums work with and talk about their collections.
It has inspired art exhibitions such as 'Extreme Imagination' at Tramway in 2019, which explored how the experience of visual imagery relates to making art. The exhibition was influenced by Clark's claims that the artists' sketchpad is more than just a tool: it is actually part of a "unified extended cognitive system" and it is a way of manipulating data that “the biological brain would find hard, time-consuming, or even impossible” (Clark, A. 2003, Natural-Born Cyborgs: Minds, Technologies, and the Future of Human Intelligence, p. 76. Oxford: Oxford University Press).
Clark's work has also been expanded by Professor Dory Scaltsas, who advocated that external objects not only function as extensions of our mind but also embody our values and ideas. Clark's and Scaltsas' research was presented to the Greek Minister for Culture, in the context of exhibiting objects to embody abstract ideas. As a result of these discussions, the Minister invited Scaltsas to collaborate on the realisation of a new type of museum, in which Greek ideas would be displayed.
Examples of cultural influence
- Inspiring new Museum of Ideas in Greece, due to be completed February 2022
- Extreme Imagination - inside the mind's eye art exhibition, 10 January - 3 March 2019 (Tramway, Glasgow)
- <Extended Mind> art exhibition organised by ARTE LUCE, 30 November - 2 December 2018 (Alte Münze, Berlin)
- Persona - Strangely Human art exhibition, 26 January - 13 November 2016 (Musée du quai Branly, Paris)
Clark has presented his ideas at several science festivals, including the New Scientist Live and HowTheLightGetsIn: The Philosophy and Music Festival at Hay in 2018. He was also featured in The New Yorker's 'Annals of Thought' in April 2018 and wrote a blog on the subject of the extended mind for The New York Times blog series ‘Opinionator’ in 2010.
Examples of public engagement activities
- Good hallucinations? Predictive brains and human experience talk, 2018 (New Scientist Live)
- Making sense of reality talk, 2018 (HowTheLightGetsIn: The Philosophy and Music Festival at Hay)
- The Mind-Expanding Ideas of Andy Clark, 2018 (The New Yorker 'Annals of Thought' April 2 issue)
- The Human Mind Project: Computers and Minds event, 2014 (Being Human festival of humanities)
- Out of Our Brains blog, 2010 (New York Times 'Opinionator' blog, reach of 500K people)
About the researcher
Professor Andy Clark (Professor of Logic and Metaphysics - University of Edinburgh Fellow)
- European Science Foundation
- Arts and Humanities Research Council