What is Extended Mind?
April 18, 2018

Chalmers makes a compelling argument that our definition of “mind” is too constricted. Objects in our environment augment and take over certain functions for our brains, extending our cognitive processes out into the physical world beyond our bodies.
00:00 Kuhn

Dave, as an old neuroscientist who’s dealt with neuroanatomy, neurophysiology, I’ve read with great interest your work with Andy Clark on the extended mind, and I think, you know, that’s a very nice metaphor. But you take it more seriously than metaphor and I don’t understand why.

00:16 Chalmers

One thing that’s uncontroversial, I think, is that the tools we use, the technology we use, has started to offload a lot of the functions of the mind from our brain to our environment. So take my smartphone, my iPhone here. You know, I used to have to remember phone numbers with my brain. Now, I don’t know the last time you did that, but these days they’re all in the phone. That brain space has been freed up for something else, and the memory role has been put here. Likewise, spatial navigation: I used to have to remember detailed maps and so on. Now Google Maps is doing it all for me; it’s taking over the spatial navigation.


So the conservative view would be this is just a tool that the mind uses. But I think the more radical view, and the view of the extended mind that I endorse, is that this phone is becoming part of your memory, Google Maps is becoming part of my spatial navigation system. So that, in the old days—when I used to have a memory of a phone number in my brain—we take this part of my mind (that unconscious part to be sure when I’m not actually thinking about it). The phone is playing a precisely analogous role to the role that the biological memory was playing. So if we say that my biological memories were truly memories—that is, part of the mind—then my phone is likewise storing my memory’s part of my mind: it’s helping me navigate. That is to say, there is no privileged border of the skin and the skull when it comes to the mind. What matters is the role that it plays.

01:52 Kuhn

I see the distinction you’re making between the two cases, but I don’t see a fundamental difference. It just seems like a semantical way that you’re dealing with memory. Sure, my memory is now on that phone, but that doesn’t mean that that phone is literally part of my consciousness. It’s a tool that I have. No difference in that phone than if I wrote it down on a piece of paper, or on a rock as a caveman; I wrote it on the wall.

02:20 Chalmers

I actually completely agree with you! The phone is not part of my consciousness. I’m inclined to think my consciousness is mostly internal. But there’s a lot in the mind that’s not part of my consciousness. Consciousness is just the tip of the iceberg. Most of what I know—where I grew up, parents, phone numbers, beliefs about geography—they’re not in my consciousness at any given time, but they’re still part of what I believe, they’re part of what I remember at some level. What I want to say is the phone is analogous to that: what’s in the giant background of the mind outside of consciousness. There’s a lot of stuff stored in my brain. Well, the phone is basically playing the same kind of role in the exosystem of consciousness, contributing to consciousness.


Every now and then, I’ll look up a phone number and I’ll think about it, it will enter my consciousness. And at that point the information might enter my brain. That’s like recalling a memory from outside consciousness and bringing it into consciousness. But we want to say that that memory was still part of your mind before it entered consciousness, in part, maybe, because of its potential effects on consciousness. What I want to say is that the phone or Google or the Internet can, in principle, play the same role that that biological memory was playing: part of the mind—if not part of consciousness.

03:34 Kuhn

So what would follow from that if I would give you the more radical interpretation of an extended mind?

03:41 Chalmers

What would follow, I think, is that we need to be a bit more generous about what we count as “mental.” That’s interesting, already, for philosophy. But we still have to think about consequences. Maybe, for example, there are moral consequences: if you take away my phone you might have a thought, well, that’s a form of theft. That’s not so good. It’s stealing. But on this view, you’re actually taking away part of my mind. It’s more a form of, maybe, assault or something. You’re taking away part of my person. And I think, as technology becomes more integral to our existence and it really does come to take on more of that personal, moral status, it might also have a consequence for education. People say “test the whole person.” So when it comes to, for example, can you use your computer or your phone in a testing circumstance—well, if that computer or that phone is becoming part of your whole person, your whole extended mind, and it’s going to be there in the future, then yeah: test the person with the phone. Not the person without the phone—that person’s irrelevant.

04:44 Kuhn

And so do you see this becoming more and more fundamental to our concept of personhood or selfhood?

04:54 Chalmers

You know, I still think—I’m a Cartesian at core. I think there’s an inner conscious self at the base of all of this. But our ordinary concept of the person and the self includes a whole lot of stuff. It includes the unconscious mind, it includes the body, and so on—all kinds of stuff—which are connected to the inner conscious mind. And I think we’re basically finding that’s a very expansive notion, and that if that concept of the self and the person can bring in the unconscious mind and can bring in the body, it can also bring in parts of the environment. So I think one needs to conceive of ourselves as creatures which are not just narrowly limited to some point in Cartesian space, but as creatures that, really, more fully inhabit the world in a more distributive way.

Find out more