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 is a groundbreaking idea, inspiring 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.
Andy’s thinking, and the brand of brain and mind sciences he explains, is becoming more and more relevant to understanding ourselves and our daily lives
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 was part of the 'Extending the Senses' project funded by an AHRC Speculative Research Grant to apply the extended mind hypothesis to developing sensory augmentation devices; the outcome being a suite of freely available iOS applications for iPhone and iPad. The apps ask how technology can enhance our natural senses. Could technology help you play a musical instrument?
Clark was appointed as a scientific advisor to the game design studio Hide & Seek in 2011. He works with them on applying the theory of the extended mind to iPhone and Xbox Kinect apps. He presented the extended mind thesis at the ‘Googleplex’ – Google’s headquarters in California in 2013, and the thesis has been adopted in several reports targeted to technology practitioners.
He also provided crucial input into influential reports for technical communication professionals, such as 'Future Convergences: Technical Communication Research as Cognitive Science' (Technical Communication Quarterly).
Examples of technological uptake
- A range of new sensory augmentation devices for iPad and iPhones, freely available through iTunes
- Scientific advisor to a game design studio, Hide & Seek, which develops iPhone, Xbox, and Kinect apps that give users a chance to experiment with emerging technologies
- Influencing the emerging theory of web science
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 extend 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)
- Upgrade! festival, 2012 (New Media Scotland)
- Out of Our Brains blog, 2010 (New York Times 'Opinionator' blog, reach of 500K people)
A Finland-based think tank now exists called the ‘Extended Mind Think Tank’. This group includes games developers and internet CEOs. It seeks to explore the effects of Clark’s work on the extended mind, including how the theory can be put into use in technology and cultural thought.
About the researcher
Professor Andy Clark (Professor of Logic and Metaphysics - University of Edinburgh Fellow)
- European Science Foundation
- Arts and Humanities Research Council