Reading Response: Clark & Chalmers

The extended mind

This piece initially induces only one thought in me: WRONG! The authors attempt to equate “use of the environment” with “cognition in the environment” and offer a number of reasons they think this is so. Unfortunately, they all fail.

First, the authors argue that when players of Tetris rotate a piece to try and fit it into a slot, the player is using the Tetris game in cognition, and moving part of the player’s cognition into the game. Offered as evidence is third-party research finding that players who rotate a piece are often doing so to determine if the piece will fill a hole. According to the authors, this means that the Tetris game is performing part of the cognition process. Not so. Rather than shifting part of the cognition into the environment, players are actually making the problem easier to solve by means of changing their environment. That is, the player takes a hard problem (“can this shape fit into this hole?”) and makes it into multiple easier problems (“Can this shape fit into this hole in this orientation?”). This basic misunderstanding of how the brain works extends even further, with their example of a notebook as memory.

Clark & Chalmers offer the example of two individuals. Inga is a normal human being; Otto has a bad case of Alzheimer’s. Both of them wish to go to the museum; upon wishing, Inga recalls that the museum is on 53rd street; Otto looks into an ever-present notebook and finds a note telling him that the museum is on 53rd street. The authors wish us to accept that Otto’s notebook plays exactly the same role in this story as Inga’s memory does, and that Otto’s mind has thus moved into the environment. But there is an obvious error in this analogy: Otto cannot be influenced by anything in his notebook unless he consciously wills it. Inga might think of the museum, and consciously choose to recall that it is on 53rd street. But her subconscious might also remind her that there is a good restaurant on 53rd street, and a move theater, and wouldn’t she really rather go to the movies? Otto will not experience any of these subconscious impulses as a result of anything stored in his notebook, because notes are not a part of his mind available to shape his conscious impulses.