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Reading :: Supersizing the Mind

Posted by: on Jul 15, 2009 | No Comments

Supersizing the Mind: Embodiment, Action, and Cognitive Extension
By Andy Clark

Someone in my Twitter stream recommended this book, and it sounded interesting enough that I picked it up and read it on the plane from PA the other week. Essentially, it’s an apologia for Clark’s assertion that the human mind is best understood as extended beyond the skull, not “brainbound” as his critics suggest. He begins the book with the illustration of Richard Feynman’s writing, which Feynman insisted was not simply a representation of his thinking but actually part of his thinking. Clark characterizes this extension of thinking across artifacts as “the outward loop as a functional part of an extended cognitive machine” (p.xxvi). Although the brain is certainly an essential, perhaps the only essential, part of this loop, the extended perspective is needed to understand the full range of cognition. Environmental engineering, he says, is self-engineering (p.xxviii).

In my case, as you might imagine, Clark could be characterized as preaching to the choir. But his “sermon” is more exigetical than hortatory: in answering his critics from cognitive science, he marshalls illustrations and evidence touching on aspects of cognition that are not familiar to lay audiences. For instance, he reports work in sensory substitution conducted in the 1960s and 1970s, in which blind subjects were fitted with grids of “nails” on their backs, nails that gently stimulated the skin based on input from a head-mounted camera. Incredibly, after a short while, the subjects began to interpret the stimulation as “quasi-visual experiences of objects looming and so forth,” even ducking balls thrown at them (p.35). They interpreted these experiences visually. Similarly, in a 2003 study, patients with leprosy were fitted with sensor gloves that stimulated sensation at a forehead-mounted disk; they quickly began to interpret the forehead stimulation as occurring at the fingertips (p.36). Based on these and other cases, Clark argues that three grades of embodiment exist: mere, basic, and profound (p.42).

In a profoundly embodied organism – I.e., us – language functions as “a form of mind-transforming cognitive scaffolding” (p.44). Clark takes us from material symbols stripped of cues, which result in “fast-and-frugal subroutines” (p.45), to the use of “spatial proximity [e.g., stacks, piles] to reduce descriptive complexity” (p.46), to mathematics and language. “Our mature mental routines,” he concludes, “are not merely self-engineered: they are massively, overwhelmingly, almost unimaginably self-engineered” (p.60).

Clark argues that embodiment seems to matter in three ways. First, it spreads the load of cognition, making problem-solving and adaptive response more fluid and efficient. Second, it allows the organism to self-structure information. Third, it supports extended cognition, co-opting “bioexternal resources into extended but deeply integrated cognitive and computational resources” (pp.196-197).

I’m skipping over a lot here, in part because Clark’s book is actually a conversation with many critics and I’m neither fully privy to that conversation nor expert enough to recapitulate it well. If you are, you may find this book to be more enlightening. I found it to be both intriguing and difficult in the same sense that A.N. Leontiev’s experiments with lights and gels were; I saw many examples of counterintuitive function, but I don’t have enough grounding in the subject to evaluate them. So in the end, my takeaway from Clark’s book was not as rich as I would have liked. If you are grounded in Vygotsky, Hutchins, Bateson, and similar scholars, you’ll get the gist as I did – but I will personally hesitate to lean too heavily on this book when making my own arguments.

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