Supersizing the Mind: Embodiment, Action, and Cognitive Extension

Supersizing the Mind: Embodiment, Action, and Cognitive Extension



The Pequod Review:

Andy Clark's 2008 book Supersizing the Mind explores the concept of extended cognition, and specifically the way we as humans use external devices and tools (such as notetaking, bodily gestures and robotics) to improve and enhance the capabilities of our mind. He starts by using a classic Richard Feynman anecdote:

Consider this famous exchange between the Nobel Prize–winning physicist Richard Feynman and the historian Charles Weiner. Weiner, encountering with a historian’s glee a batch of Feynman’s original notes and sketches, remarked that the materials represented “a record of [Feynman’s] day-to-day work.”

But instead of simply acknowledging this historic value, Feynman reacted with unexpected sharpness: “I actually did the work on the paper,” he said.

“Well,” Weiner said, “the work was done in your head, but the record of it is still here.”

“No, it’s not a record, not really. It’s working. You have to work on paper and this is the paper. Okay?”

Feynman’s suggestion is, at the very least, that the loop into the external medium was integral to his intellectual activity (the “working”) itself. But I would like to go further and suggest that Feynman was actually thinking on the paper. The loop through pen and paper is part of the physical machinery responsible for the shape of the flow of thoughts and ideas that we take, nonetheless, to be distinctively those of Richard Feynman. It reliably and robustly provides a functionality which, were it provided by goings-on in the head alone, we would have no hesitation in designating as part of the cognitive circuitry. Such considerations of parity, once we put our bioprejudices aside, reveal the outward loop as a functional part of an extended cognitive machine. Such body-and world-involving cycles are best understood, or so I shall argue, as quite literally extending the machinery of mind out into the world—as building extended cognitive circuits that are themselves the minimal material bases for important aspects of human thought and reason. Such cycles supersize the mind.

From this and other examples, Clarks proceeds to make the broader argument that "certain forms of human cognizing include inextricable tangles of feedback, feed-forward and feed-around loops: loops that promiscuously criss-cross the boundaries of brain, body and world... In building our physical and social worlds, we build (or rather, we massively reconfigure) our minds and our capacities of thought and reason." This is a much more comprehensive and fluid way of thinking about human intelligence and cognition than the typical "brain-bound" perspective.