Constraining the ancient mind

As part of Seed Magazine’s on innovative thinkers in science, they published a podcast interview with archaeologist Lambros Malafouris who is pioneering the study of ancient cultural artefacts as a way of constraining theories in evolutionary psychology.

One of the criticisms of some evolutionary psychology is that it too often involves over-interpretation and ‘just so’ stories – explanations of why we have certain psychological attributes that are stories rather than hypotheses that can be easily tested.

Malafouris has taken the novel approach of using the findings from archaeology to systematically generate and test theories of the evolution of the mind. He seems particularly interested in embodied cognition, the idea that the mind can only be understood in relation to how it interacts with the world through body and action.

The mainstream approach to cognition holds that it happens in the mind and that material culture is nothing more than an outgrowth of our mental capacities. Archaeologist Lambros Malafouris is challenging this deep-seated idea with a radical new notion: the hypothesis of extended mind, which posits that material culture is not a reflection of the human mind but an actual part of it. Take, for instance, a blind man’s stick. “Where does the blind man end and the rest of the world begin?” he says. “You might see the stick as something external, but it plays a very important role in the perceptual system of this person. It extends the boundaries of this human‚Äîthe stick becomes an integral part of the cognitive architecture.”

If material culture is an extension of human cognition, our engagement with it has actively shaped the evolution of human intelligence, Malafouris argues. For example, ancient clay tablets that allowed people to actually write down records were not mere objects, he says. Instead, they became integral adjuncts of the human memory system. The invention of such a technology “changes the structure of the human mind,” says Malafouris, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Cambridge. Rather than happening wholly in the head, he argues, cognition develops and evolves through the interplay between intelligence and material culture.

In fact, there’s an increasing focus on related ideas. Some of my favourite studies have been done by psychologist Dennis Proffitt who has found numerous effects of tool use on thinking and perception.

One of my favourite studies is where he found that we perceive distances as shorter when we have a tool in our hand, but only when we intend to use it.

Malafouris is using these ideas and adds to the relatively new but exciting field of cognitive archaeology.

Link to Seed interview with Lambros Malafouris.


  1. Posted August 2, 2008 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

    The blind man and the stick is a well-known thought experiment from Gregory Bateson in 1972. Does Malafouris credit Bateson anywhere?

  2. Posted August 2, 2008 at 5:37 pm | Permalink

    The extended mind thesis is one that’s gaining ground in philosophy of mind and philosophy of technology these days. It was originally proposed by Andy Clark, and is still defended most strongly by him. Check out his book _Natural Born Cyborgs_ for more on the topic.

  3. Matt McGrattan
    Posted August 4, 2008 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

    The blind-man/stick analogy goes back to Descartes. And embodied cognition is a fairly common-place concept in some ‘continental’ schools of philosophy of mind and has been for decades.
    Dan Zahavi and Shaun Gallagher’s book _The Phenomenological Mind_ is quite good on this stuff.

  4. Trystan
    Posted August 7, 2008 at 6:14 pm | Permalink

    This notion has also been recognized for some time within computer science. CS pioneer E.G. Dijkstra is quoted as stating, “the tools we’re trying to use and the language or notation we are using to express or record our thoughts, are the major factors determining what we can think or express at all.”
    Glad to see some actual research along these lines though as opposed to only anecdotes.

  5. theotherone
    Posted August 16, 2008 at 7:24 am | Permalink

    This also reminds me of the ‘extensions of man’ as suggested by Marshall McLuhan, and how the exteriorization of the senses through technology and media shift the interplay between the perception of the natural senses… it’s all connected. Very interesting stuff.

Post a Comment

Required fields are marked *


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 24,090 other followers