I want to pass on two interesting articles that review how the self we usually take to be largely inside our heads (somewhere behind the eyes) in fact has meaning only in contexts that extend vastly beyond the little grey cells in our cranium. Annie Murphy Paul notes
four basic extensions that let our brains be less workhorse, and more orchestra conductor.
...the first and most obvious being our tools. Technology is designed to fulfill just this function — who remembers telephone numbers anymore, now that our smartphones can supply them?
Our external memory stores have evolved from marks on clay tablets through printed books to bytes stored in the cloud.
A second resource is our bodies:
The burgeoning field of embodied cognition has demonstrated that the body — its sensations, gestures and movements — plays an integral role in the thought processes that we usually locate above the neck. The body is especially adept at alerting us to patterns of events and experience, patterns that are too complex to be held in the conscious mind. When a scenario we encountered before crops up again, the body gives us a nudge: communicating with a shiver or a sigh, a quickening of the breath or a tensing of the muscles. Those who are attuned to such cues can use them to make more-informed decisions. A study led by a team of economists and neuroscientists in Britain, for instance, reported that financial traders who were better at detecting their heartbeats — a standard test of what is known as interoception, or the ability to perceive internal signals — made more profitable investments and lasted longer in that notoriously volatile profession.
This second extension is the subject of the other article I want to mention, in which Emily Underwood does a review
of communication between the brain and other organs, mediated by the vagus nerve, that shapes how we think, remember, and feel (not open source, but motivated readers can obtain a copy by emailing me).
Scientists are unraveling how our organs talk to the brain and how the brain talks back. That two-way communication, known as interoception, encompasses a complex system of nerves and hormones, including the vagus nerve, a massive network of fibers that travel from nearly every internal organ to the base of the brain and back again. Scientist have long known the vagus nerve carries signals between the organs and the brainstem. But new studies show signals carried by the vagus climb beyond the brainstem and into brain regions involved in memory, emotion, and decision-making. The research is challenging traditional distinctions between disorders of the brain and body, and may even hold clues to the nature of consciousness.
Now, back to Paul's article, and her third extension of our brain:
Another extraneural resource available for our use is physical space. Moving mental contents out of our heads and onto the space of a sketch pad or whiteboard allows us to inspect it with our senses, a cognitive bonus that the psychologist Daniel Reisberg calls “the detachment gain.”...Three-dimensional space offers additional opportunities for offloading mental work and enhancing the brain’s powers. When we turn a problem to be solved into a physical object that we can interact with, we activate the robust spatial abilities that allow us to navigate through real-world landscapes. This suite of human strengths, honed over eons of evolution, is wasted when we sit still and think.
A fourth extension of our minds...
...can be found in other people’s minds. We are fundamentally social creatures, oriented toward thinking with others. Problems arise when we do our thinking alone — for example, the well-documented phenomenon of confirmation bias, which leads us to preferentially attend to information that supports the beliefs we already hold. According to the argumentative theory of reasoning, advanced by the cognitive scientists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber, this bias is accentuated when we reason in solitude. Humans’ evolved faculty for reasoning is not aimed at arriving at objective truth, Mercier and Sperber point out; it is aimed at defending our arguments and scrutinizing others’. It makes sense, they write, “for a cognitive mechanism aimed at justifying oneself and convincing others to be biased and lazy. The failures of the solitary reasoner follow from the use of reason in an ‘abnormal’ context’” — that is, a nonsocial one.
All four of these extraneural resources — technology, the body, physical space, social interaction — can be understood as mental extensions that allow the brain to accomplish far more than it could on its own. This is the theory of the extended mind, introduced more than two decades ago by the philosophers Andy Clark and David Chalmers. A 1998 article of theirs published in the journal Analysis began by posing a question that would seem to have an obvious answer: “Where does the mind stop and the rest of the world begin?” They went on to offer an unconventional response. The mind does not stop at the usual “boundaries of skin and skull,” they maintained. Rather, the mind extends into the world and augments the capacities of the biological brain with outside-the-brain resources.
Compared to the attention we lavish on the brain, we expend relatively little effort on cultivating our ability to think outside the brain...The limits of this approach have become painfully evident. The days when we could do it all in our heads are over. Our knowledge is too abundant, our expertise too specialized, our challenges too enormous. The best chance we have to thrive in the extraordinarily complex world we’ve created is to allow that world to assume some of our mental labor. Our brains can’t do it alone.