On Extended Minds

“The extended mind” has focus some of my attention recently. It seems to be one of the basic epistemological assumptions upon which many teaching, learning, and schooling decisions are made.

First, the mind. Let’s adopt the materialist view that it exists in the brain. There can be little debate in the central role for that clump of organized and connected neurons in cognition.

Brain-based views (which I suggest are held by many educators) assume that cognition is a process that occurs within those neurons and only within those neurons. Through practice, training, and a myriad of other teaching methods, educators seek to develop and strengthen those processes.

When we adopt brain-based views, certain strategies are advocated:

  • Teaching is an information-processing activity. We ignore students’ emotional states or reactions; it is the objective processing of information (a dubious concept for sure) that matters.
  • Processing must become visible. Educators assume everything learned must be articulated.
  • Teaching can be individualized (and personalized). What students know exists only in their brains, so they can work in isolation to learn the curriculum, and the strategies can be tailored to their “learning styles.” (There seems in my experience to be a correlation between holding one dubious view of learning, like learning styles, and others like brain-based concepts of learning.)
  • Social interaction is perceived as play rather than learning.
  • The use of technology is perceived as “cheating.” Interestingly, only certain technologies are cheating. Pencil and paper to perform calculations, which are technologies in every way, are generally acceptable, but digital electronic calculators are not. I’ve often wondered about paper. Isn’t that cheating, too? Why should a student not remember the questions they are supposed to answer rather than storing them on paper?

Look at my last few words… “storing them on paper.” This is the basis of extended minds.

Humans do extend their cognition outside of their brains. Lifetimes of using paper have made us forget it role is to help us remember, which is after all a function of human brains. We don’t have to go that far. There is evidence that “gut reactions” are real. Our bodies react to the environment and signal our brains that something relevant is here. Gestures have been shown to help people remember, and place does too. Social cues and social interactions affect our cognitive abilities as well.

There is a literature on “the extended mind” that I am only beginning to consume. I expect my conceptualization of the extended mind will become more sophisticated.

What is clear to me at this point is that education that focuses on the individual and their development of skills and knowledge alone and that doesn’t recognize and strengthen their connections to cognition in the body, in their tools, and in their social interactions and that variety of types of knowledge that emerges from these networks is too limiting to be worthy.