Where is your mind?

My BBC Future column from a few days ago. The original is here. I’m donating the fee from this article to Wikipedia. Read the column and it should be obvious why. Perhaps you should too: donate.wikimedia.org.


We like to think our intelligence is self-made; it happens inside our heads, the product of our inner thoughts alone. But the rise of Google, Wikipedia and other online tools has made many people question the impact of these technologies on our brains. Is typing in the search term, “Who has played James Bond in the movies?” the same as knowing that the answer is Sean Connery, George Lazenby, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig (… plus David Niven in Casino Royale)? Can we say we know the answer to this question when what we actually know is how to rapidly access the information?

I’ve written before about whether or not the internet is rewiring our brains, but here the question is about how we seek to define intelligence itself. And the answer appears to be an intriguing one. Because when you look at the evidence from psychological studies, it suggests that much of our intelligence comes from how we coordinate ourselves with other people and our environment.

An influential theory among psychologists is that we’re cognitive misers. This is the idea that we are reluctant to do mental work unless we have to, we try to avoid thinking things though fully when a short cut is available. If you’ve ever voted for the political candidate with the most honest smile, or chosen a restaurant based on how many people are already sitting in there, then you’ve been a cognitive miser. The theory explains why we’d much rather type a zipcode into a sat-nav device or Google Maps than memorise and recall the location of a venue – it’s so much easier to do so.

Research shows that people don’t tend to rely on their memories for things they can easily access. Things like the world in front of our eyes, for example, can be changed quite radically without people noticing. Experiments have shown that buildings can somehow disappear from pictures we’re looking at, or the people we’re talking to can be switched with someone else, and often we won’t notice – a phenomenon called “change blindness”. This isn’t as an example of human stupidity – far from it, in fact – this is an example of mental efficiency. The mind relies on the world as a better record than memory, and usually that’s a good assumption.

As a result, philosophers have suggested that the mind is designed to spread itself out over the environment. So much so that, they suggest, the thinking is really happening in the environment as much as it is happening in our brains. The philosopher Andy Clark called humans “natural born cyborgs“, beings with minds that naturally incorporate new tools, ideas and abilities. From Clark’s perspective, the route to a solution is not the issue – having the right tools really does mean you know the answers, just as much as already knowing the answer.

Society wins

A memory study by Daniel Wegner of Harvard University provides a neat example of this effect. Couples were asked to come into the lab to take a memorisation test. Half the couples were kept together, and half were reassigned to pair up with someone they didn’t know. Both groups then studied a list of words in silence, and were then tested individually. The pairs that were made up of a couple in a relationship could remember more items, both overall and as individuals.

What happened, according to Wegner, was that the couples in a relationship had a good understanding of their partners. Because of this they would tacitly divide up the work between them, so that, say, one partner would remember words to do with technology, assuming the other would remember the words to do with sports. In this way, each partner could concentrate on their strengths, and so individually they outperformed people in couples where no mental division of labour was possible. Just as you rely on a search engine for answers, so you can rely on people you deal with regularly to think about certain things, developing a shared system for committing items to memory and bringing them out again, what Wegner called “transactive memory”.

Having minds that work this way is one of the great strengths of the human species. Rather than being forced to rely on our own resources for everything, we can share our knowledge and so pool our understanding. Technology keeps track of things for individuals so we don’t have to, while large systems of knowledge serve the needs of society as a whole. I don’t know how a computer works, or how to grow broccoli, but that knowledge is out there and I get to benefit. And the internet provides even more potential to share this knowledge. Wikipedia is one of the best examples – an evolving store of the world’s knowledge for which everyone can benefit from. I use Wikipedia every day, aware of all the caveats of doing so, because it supports me in all the thinking I do for things like this column.

So as well as having a physical environment – like the rooms or buildings we live or work in – we also have a mental environment. Which means that when I ask you where your mind is, you shouldn’t point toward the centre of your forehead. As research on areas like transactive memory shows, our minds are made up just as much by the people and tools around us as they are by the brain cells inside our skull.

ENDNOTE: Wikipedia is an unparalleled democratisation of knowledge, a
wonderful sharing of human intelligence that’s free to anyone to view. I’m
donating the fee for this article to help support Wikipedia’s work. If you feel you can help out please follow this link: https://donate.wikimedia.org.

12 thoughts on “Where is your mind?”

  1. Funny. I have always hated calculators and easy answers by looking them up.
    I always feel like I am stealing if I don’t understand how the answer was arrived at. I used to get crap from my wife because if something wasn’t working properly, like the computer, I wasn’t satisfied with having it fixed for me/us, I had to figure out how to fix it myself, and thus the computer became a part of me, so to speak, and not just a means to an end.

    It is a skill to know how to find information and where to look, and I would rather read a map than use the GPS.

    Maybe I just like a problematic life, I’m not sure. Never been able to figure that one out, really.

  2. “As research on areas like transactive memory shows, our minds are made up just as much by the people and tools around us as they are by the brain cells inside our skull.”

    Ultimately this transaction is facilitated [even if unconsciously] by neuronal processes in the individual brain. Perhaps, the mirror neurons play a role.

  3. This is a fascinating way to view the mind as extending outwards towards the social in many ways. I argued similarly not long ago in an article that countered Nicholas Carr’s old argument from “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” He suggests that easy access to information on the web results in a lower level of thought.

    The idea seems absurd to me and your article gives me more ammunition. I love to think of Wikipedia, for example, as an extension of my brain: social knowledge.Thinking differently is not pejorative, nor does thinking together need to be. There is much to be said for the division of labor type thinking. If we free our minds of that which is unnecessary to remember, we can maximize our creativity and ingenuity. Thank you for your insightful post.

  4. People use the environment as a sort of short term ram buffer for not only orientation, but for memory also. cognitive conservation discribes it. for example when you go for a walk in a new area, you find your way back using a few landmarks. I feel invincible by navigating a new piece of forest, and stupid when I misplace my car in a huge parking lot. internal and external orientation is more than similar.

  5. I find myself making these sorts of cateogizations consciously: what I can trust myself to remember, what I need to write down, what I can rely on others to know, and what I can easily look up.

  6. The Extended Mind theory and the results of research on transactive memory are so appealing because traditionally, philosophers and psychologists have considered organisms to be distinct from their environment. This is what gives rise to indirect realism which underlies most current neuroscientific and psychological thinking. But when you put animal and environment back together again, as J.J. Gibson did in his many writings, the fact that things in the environment can become part of us naturally follows.

    Despite the rich tradition of memory research, I have my doubts that memory as a construct and theoretical concept is necessary for explaining behavior. One needs only consider invertebrates and other organisms (such as the venerable slime mould, Physarum polycephalum) which display complex behaviors indicative of memory but which lack the CNS necessary to support a central memory storehouse. In fact, recent research has indicated that P. polycephalum relies on a form of external memory in order to solve mazes. All organisms probably do this.

    Memory research often involves higher-cognitive abilities and artificial tasks. When one considers the real purpose of memory for organisms, it boils down to several things: Memory serves as a means for informing organisms about past behaviors and events (retrospectivity) in the service of present and future behaviors and events (prospectivity or anticipation), and it also serves as a means for informing about present location during locomotion and navigation (which are some of the most important functions for any organism, how else can they find food, shelter, and mates?)

    Retrospectivity, prospectivity, and navigation can all be accounted for without postulating anything like memory. The environment fully supports these kinds of abilities.

  7. Great contribution. In college I would cross-check concepts with multiple biology books / sites. It promotes critical thinking, if you can interpret between-the-lines differences in scientific explanations across various sources.

    Wikipedia is great as long as it’s kept updated. If new research comes along, it’s not as though people say hey, someone call Wikipedia! Their links and references are often stellar; my only objection is that the information there often contradicts what’s on the site itself. For example one wild cat species was called nocturnal on Wikipedia, when you clicked on their referenced .edu site it states the cat had recently been found to be diurnal.

  8. It’s crazy to think about the power of our minds as well as its affect upon the future of humanity itself. This article reminds me of a movie I saw recently called “Solar Revolution.” The film speculates how our minds will perceive the world around us, after civilization has reached it’s so called “end.” You can check out the trailer at yekra.com/solar-revolution. 2013 is only a month or so away! we need to get educated upon the dimension our mind will soon be catapulted into! Trippy Stuff !

  9. That comment reminded me of some article I read about whether our minds would be able to adapt to living on some other planet, if that bizarre idea ever became our last option. I had the impression that our evolution would not allow us to adapt for that change. Anyway it also brings to mind the broccoli example; book smarts are one thing but someone who reads how to grow crops might be in for a big surprise once they try it for the first time. Not sure what that type of intelligence is called but I think our native ancestors had a far better grip on the workings of the natural world than even the best scholar today.

    1. Yeah, book learnin (lol) is so structured and tries to predict difficulties and how to deal with them, whereas in real situations, taking in complex observations and using that to react and problem solve is not a clearly delineated process.
      I think that all experiences become part of ourselves, and the more that is experienced, the more you begin to perceive and interact with, the more subtle and interconnected you become. Harmonious I suppose.

      I doubt that anything, or amount of foreknowledge, no matter how intricate and ‘predictive’ can possibly compare to the actual experience. Not even close.
      I’m not sure what kind of intelligence that is either, but I know humility is a part of it.

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