Monday, February 09, 2009

Supersizing the Mind

Supersizing the Mind: Embodiment, Action, and Cognitive Extension, a recent book by philosopher Andy Clark is reviewed by Melvyn Goodale in Nature, and I pass on some clips from his review, because Clark's views exactly mirror the sentiments expressed in my Biology of Mind Book:
In Supersizing the Mind, philosopher Andy Clark makes the compelling argument that the mind extends beyond the body to include the tools, symbols and other artefacts we deploy to engage the world. According to Clark and other proponents of the 'extended mind' hypothesis, the laptop on which I am writing this review is coupled to my brain and has become part of my mind. Manipulating sentences on the screen can prompt new insights and new ways of conveying ideas, a reiterative cognitive process that would be difficult to achieve without such a tool. The same argument applies to my BlackBerry, to the white board in my office, and even to the conversations I might have with my colleagues. Cognition, Clark argues, is not 'brain-bound' but a dynamic interaction between the neural circuits inside our skulls, our bodies and the objects and events in the outside world.

Clark explores in detail the consequences of embodied and extended cognition for our conscious perception of the world. He acknowledges that the "intimacy of brain, body, world, and action" must have implications for our perceptual experience, but ultimately rejects the idea of enactive perception championed by philosopher Alva Noë, in which our experience is seen as nothing more than the sensorimotor routines that we use to interact with the world. For Clark, perception is shaped by the way in which we explore this world. But at the same time, he argues, our conscious experience of objects and events is not bound to the details of the sensorimotor routines that mediate that exploration. These routines, he suggests, are controlled by encapsulated systems with operating characteristics that are not privy to conscious, or even unconscious, scrutiny and whose activity is removed from the information they convey. In rejecting Noë's sensorimotor model, Clark argues that conscious perception does not depend on a "common sensorimotor currency" but arises from a subtle interplay between brain, body and environment, "replete with special-purpose streaming and with multiple, quasi-independent forms of internal, and external, representation and processing".

If Clark is right, and I think he is, then simply studying what goes on in the brain will tell us only part of what happens as cognitive activity unfolds. To capture the richness of thought, we have to step outside the box and embrace the world beyond the skull.

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