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Aristotle, Cyberpunk, and Extended Minds

How far does it go?

How far does it go?

Aristotle argued against teaching people to read. If we can store our memories externally, he argued, we won’t need to store them internally, and that would be a tragic loss. We’ll stop training our brains. We’ll forget how to remember.

Aristotle was right, of course. Except for a few “memory athletes”, we no longer train our brains to remember. And our plastic brains may well have changed because of it. The brain of a Greek orator, trained in advanced memory techniques, was probably structurally different from our modern brains. What we learn (or don’t learn) shapes our physical brains.

Becoming literate was one step in a long journey to externalize our minds. Today, we call it the “extended mind” based on a 1998 paper by the philosophers Andy Clark and David Chalmers. Clark and Chalmers ask the simple question: “Where does our mind stop and the rest of the world begin?” The answer, they suggest, is “… active externalism, based on the active role of the environment in driving cognitive processes.”

If our minds extend beyond our skulls, where do they stop? I see at least three answers.

First, the mind extends throughout the rest of the body. As we’ve seen with embodied cognition, we think with our bodies as much as our brains. The physical brain is within our skulls but the mind seems to encompass our entire body.

Second, our minds extend to other people. We know that the people around us affect our behavior. (My mother warned me against running with a fast crowd). It turns out that other people affect our thoughts as well, in direct and physical ways.

The physical mechanism for “thought transfer” is the mirror neuron – “…a neuron that fires both when an animal acts and when the animal observes the same action performed by another.” When we see another person do something, our mirror neurons imitate the same behavior. Other people’s actions and moods affect our thoughts. We can – and do –read minds.

The impact of our mirror neurons varies from person to person. The radio show Invisibilia recently profiled a woman who could barely leave her own home so affected was she by other people’s thoughts. (You can find the podcast, called Entanglement, here). The woman was so entangled with others that it’s nearly impossible to draw a line between one mind and another. Perhaps we’re all entangled – each brain is like a synapse in a much larger brain.

Third, we can extend our minds through our external devices. We now have many ways to externalize our memories and, perhaps, even our entire personas. In Neuromancer, the novel that launched the cyberpunk wave, people save their entire personalities and memories on cassette tapes. (How quaint). They extend their minds not only spatially but also into the future.

Neuromancer is about the future, of course. What about today’s devices … and, especially, the world’s most popular device, the smartphone? As we extend our minds through smartphones, do we reduce the “amount of mind” that remains within us? Do smartphones make us dumb? Or, conversely, do they increase the total intelligence availability to humanity – some of it in our brains and bodies and some of it in our external devices?

Good questions. Let’s talk about them tomorrow.

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