Our minds are under attack. At least that’s what I keep hearing these days. Thumbing away at our text messages, we are becoming illiterate. (Or is that illiter8?) Blogs make us coarse, YouTube makes us shallow. Last summer the cover of The Atlantic posed a question: “Is Google Making Us Stoopid?” Inside the magazine, author Nicholas Carr argued that the Internet is damaging our brains, robbing us of our memories and deep thoughts. “As we come to rely on computers to mediate our understanding of the world,” he wrote, “it is our own intelligence that flattens into artificial intelligence.”
I have a hard time taking these Cassandras of the Computer Age seriously. For one thing, they are much more interested in our fears than in the facts. In his new book, Txtng: The Gr8 Db8, the English linguist David Crystal demonstrates that many of the dire warnings about texting are little more than urban legends. Texting doesn’t lead to bad spelling, he finds. In fact, Crystal writes, “texting actually improves your literacy, as it gives you more practice in reading and writing.”
More significantly, the ominous warnings feed on a popular misconception of how the mind works. We tend to think of the mind as separated from the world; we imagine information trickling into our senses and reaching our isolated minds, which then turn that information into a detailed picture of reality. The Internet and iPhones seem to be crashing the gate of the mind, taking over its natural work and leaving it to wither away to a mental stump. As plausible as this picture may seem, it does a bad job of explaining a lot of recent scientific research. In fact, the mind appears to be adapted for reaching out from our heads and making the world, including our machines, an extension of itself.
This concept of the extended mind was first raised in 1998, right around the time Google was born, by two philosophers, Andy Clark, now at the University of Edinburgh, and David Chalmers, now at the Australian National University. In the journal Analysis, they published a short essay called “The Extended Mind” in which they asked a simple question: “Where does the mind stop and the rest of the world begin?” Most people might answer, “At the skull.” But Clark and Chalmers set out to convince their readers that the mind is not simply the product of the neurons in our brains, locked away behind a wall of bone. Rather, they argued that the mind is something more: a system made up of the brain plus parts of its environment.
The mind appears to be adapted for reaching out and making the world, including our machines, an extension of itself.
Clark and Chalmers asked their readers to imagine a woman named Inga. Inga hears from a friend that there’s an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art. She decides to go see it. She thinks for a moment, recalls that the museum is on 53rd Street, and starts walking that way. She accesses her belief that MOMA is on 53rd Street from its storage place in her brain’s memory network. Now imagine a man named Otto, who has Alzheimer’s. His memory is faulty, and so he keeps with him a notebook in which he writes down important details. Like Inga, Otto hears about the museum exhibit. Since he can’t access the address in his brain, he looks it up in his notebook and then heads off in the same direction as Inga.
In the view of Clark and Chalmers, Inga’s brain-based memory and Otto’s notebook are fundamentally the same. Inga’s mind just happens to access information stored away in her brain, while Otto’s mind draws on information stored in his notebook. The notebook, in other words, is part of his extended mind. It doesn’t make any difference that Otto keeps his notebook tucked away much of the time. After all, Inga tucks the memory of MOMA’s address out of her conscious awareness most of the time too. Clark and Chalmers concluded that real people are actually more like Otto than like Inga: We all have minds that extend out into our environments.
Eleven years later, this argument continues to trigger fierce debate among philosophers, psychologists, and neuroscientists. There is no doubt that the extended mind is a weird concept. One reason it seems so strange is that our minds feel as if they are really totally self-contained. We innately believe, for example, that as we walk down a street, we are continuously filming a detailed movie of our surroundings and using that mental movie to decide what to do next. But like many beliefs we have about ourselves, this movie is an illusion. Our awareness is, in fact, remarkably narrow.
One of the most spectacular demonstrations of how oblivious we can be was carried out by psychologists Daniel Simons of the University of Illinois and Christopher Chabris at Harvard University. They asked people to watch a video of students weaving around each other and passing a basketball. Half the students wore white shirts, the other half black. The subjects had to keep track of how many times the ball was passed by members of one of the teams. In the middle of the game, a gorilla (rather, a student in a gorilla costume) sauntered through the scene. Many subjects later reported that they never saw the gorilla; their brains discarded it as extraneous.
Inside our heads, instead of making a perfect replica of the world, we focus our attention on tiny snippets, darting our eyes from point to point. We extract only the information we need for whatever task is at hand, whether we’re sorting the laundry or climbing a mountain.
We use strikingly little information in the process. Dana Ballard, a computer scientist at the University of Texas, developed a computer game to measure just how little. He showed his subjects a pattern of colored blocks in the upper left-hand corner of the computer monitor. He then had them build a similar pattern of blocks in the lower left-hand corner. To do so, the players used a mouse to grab blocks, one by one, from a collection on the right-hand side of the screen. As the players looked from the original model to the collection of blocks to their own growing pattern, Ballard tracked their eye movements. He found that players looked at the model at the upper left before they picked up a block, and then again afterward. His experiments suggest that in each glance, the players were storing only a single piece of information. The first time they noted a block’s color. The second time they noted its position in the model. Instead of keeping a detailed picture of the blocks in mind, people extracted just tiny scraps of information on a need-to-know basis.