Where is mind? In here and out there.

By | May 21, 2011

A recent article, “Out of Our Brains,” [1] by Andy Clark ( professor of logic and metaphysics in the School of Philosophy, Psychology, and Language Sciences at Edinburgh University, Scotland), along with his short follow-up, “Extended Mind Redux: A Response,” [2] offer some provocative ideas and readers’ commentaries with regard to the concept of ‘mind’ and its location.

In the first article, Clark takes up the question, Where is my mind? Some of us might even doubt that this question makes much sense [3], but Clark assumes it is a coherent question and is prepared to give his response.

Some people might feel that before we can ask about the location of mind, we need a definition of mind. The fact is that definitions of mind are many and raise a host of questions and controversies in their own right. For purpose of the Clark’s discussion, we can think of “mind” along the lines outlined by Walter Kaufmann, a characterization that is consistent with Clark’s idea of mind in the article. [W. Kaufmann sees ]…

“mind” as an inclusive term for feeling and intelligence, reason and emotion, perception and will, thought and the unconscious.

[Walter Kaufmann, The Discovery of Mind, McGraw-Hill, 1980, page 3]

From the Oxford Guide to Philosophy, (Oxford University Press, 2005, page, 603) we get this characterization of mind:

“.. You have a mind if you think, perceive, or feel. Your mind is like your life or your weight, an abstract version of an unproblematic property. ..We don’t have to take minds as objects. They can be features of other objects, such as persons or features of person’s lives. Still we can study minds, inasmuch as we can study thinking, perceiving, and feeling. This is psychology.”

So, for starters, we can conceive of the mind functionally, as the activity of thought, feeling, perception and such.

Now we shall take up Clark’s question: Where is my mind? He starts by remarking:

“Look at the science columns of your daily newspapers and you could be forgiven for thinking that there is no case to answer. We are all familiar with the colorful “brain blob” pictures that show just where activity (indirectly measured by blood oxygenation level) is concentrated as we attempt to solve different kinds of puzzles: blobs here for thinking of nouns, there for thinking of verbs, over there for solving ethical puzzles of a certain class, and so on, ad blobum

“There is no limit, it seems, to the different tasks that elicit subtly, and sometimes not so subtly, different patterns of neural activation. Surely then, all the thinking must be going on in the brain? That, after all, is where the lights are.

This may explain why many people are inclined to locate the mind inside the head with the brain. So, the mind must be located with the brain.

But then again, maybe not. Clark’s second question:

“Is it possible that, sometimes at least, some of the activity that enables us to be the thinking, knowing, agents that we are occurs outside the brain?”

He proceeds to give us several reasons for the possibility that mental activity takes place outside the head:

First, referring to gestures and hand-waving motions that we make when talking, Clark refers to theorists who find reason for “suspecting that the bodily motions may themselves be playing some kind of active role in our thought process.

“In experiments where the active use of gesture is inhibited, subjects show decreased performance on various kinds of mental tasks. Now whatever is going on in these cases, the brain is obviously deeply implicated! No one thinks that the physical handwavings are all by themselves the repositories of thoughts or reasoning. But it may be that they are contributing to the thinking and reasoning, perhaps by lessening or otherwise altering the tasks that the brain must perform, and thus helping us to move our own thinking along

Second, Clark refers to the evolutionary angle:

“There is no more reason, from the perspective of evolution or learning, to favor the use of a brain-only cognitive strategy than there is to favor the use of canny (but messy, complex, hard-to-understand) combinations of brain, body and world.

Third, he mentions that there are

“…. many resources whose task-related bursts of activity take place elsewhere, not just in the physical motions of our hands and arms while reasoning, or in the muscles of the dancer or the sports star, but even outside the biological body — in the iPhones, BlackBerrys, laptops and organizers which transform and extend the reach of bare biological processing in so many ways.

Finally, he mentions what he calls “cognitive prosthetics” at work:

“As our information-processing technologies improve and become better and better adapted to fit the niche provided by the biological brain, they become more like cognitive prosthetics: non-biological circuits that come to function as parts of the material underpinnings of minds like ours.

Given such considerations, Clark’s answer to his first question – Where is mind? – is that at least part of the mind is external to the head and even external to the body in relevant aspects of the environment. This talk of the “extended mind” and mental activity outside the head is intriguing; but the discussion can quickly become abstract, complicated, and technical. The reader can consult a number of publications if he/she wishes to delve more into this issue [4].

For the present, I simply wish to direct some of your thinking to simple everyday activity that might lend credence to Clark’s contention. To simplify our approach, let’s try some of the following questions and remarks. They will not give a definitive answer to Clark’s question, but they will at least help us to focus on some relevant considerations as we ponder the problem.

What do you do when you try to understand the thinking of another person?

How do you show someone else what you are thinking?
What do we mean when we describe someone as ‘thinking out loud’?

As students in a mathematics course, when we solve a problem on paper (or on the board), is our reasoning out there on the paper or on the black board?

When a mathematics or logic instructor requires that you show your work (show the steps by which you derived the conclusion), is the instructor asking for an external picture of your thinking?

Suppose that we are following the moves that a chess player makes; at some point we exclaim that we see what his trying to do. Does this indicate that we see (by way of the moves of pieces on the board) what he is thinking?

Does it make sense to say that often we think with pencil or pen, with our keyboard, or with our computers and calculators?

To work out this problem, I need to write it down on paper. Do I organize and work out my thinking on paper? Does this put my thinking out there (on the paper) rather than in my head?

Sometimes in order to think out a problem, I have to talk it out loud (to myself, or to another person).

Some people cannot describe something without many hand and bodily gestures.

Some people think best when they can stand up and walk around rather than just sitting.

Sometimes I can only work out what I’m thinking by ‘talking it’ to another person.

Usually when you tell me what you’re thinking, I can be confident that I know what you’re thinking; i.e., I don’t worry that what you’re really thinking is inside (your head) and hidden from me.

We often work out the solution to a math problem on the black board or on paper. If we’re interested in chess, we can work out a chess problem — check out possible responses to an opponent’s moves — on a chess board. A very good mathematician or a very good chess player may be able to work out those solutions in his head. When he does this we might say that he works out the problem “mentally.” But the use of paper or the board is also indicative of ‘mental’ work. These external ways also show the “mind at work.

If you insist that the mind is an entity, you must also admit that it is a very curious type of entity. Sometimes it manifests itself in a person’s outward behavior; sometimes it shows internally, “in the head.” Maybe this is the best that a blog posting can do as a quick commentary on the question that Clark’s article poses.

[1] from The Opinionator, online commentary for the NY Times, Dec. 12, 2010


[2] http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/12/14/extended-mind-redux-a-response/

[3] A piece of music – a song or a composition – can be written by a specific person at a particular place. The Gershwin brothers composed and wrote “Summer Time.” Ludwig Beethoven composed the Fifth Symphony. When finished, these works can be performed at a specific location. But it would be a strange question to ask for the location of the song (Where is “Summer Time”? or the symphony, Where is Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony?). The song or the symphony is not like a statue or a painting which have a specific location. It may be that asking for the location of the mind is much like asking for the location of a song, in short, it may be a basic misconception

[4] For example, the article “The Extended Mind,” by Andy Clark and David J. Chalmers.


One thought on “Where is mind? In here and out there.

  1. Gary Fletcher

    This discussion leaves me a bit puzzled as to how it clarifies things or why there is a need to clarify the question. Why isn’t the idea that mind or thinking is an activity of the brain sufficiently clear and satisfying? Clark suggests that something like an abacus is like a prosthetic for the brain, which is perfectly reasonable. The abacus is an aid to thinking just like an artificial limb or crutch might be an aid to walking. But generally it is not considered a deep or interesting question as to whether the artificial limb or crutch is actually walking when a person uses them to walk. Is it a deep question to ask, “Where is walking?” Walking occurs wherever a person walks. Now walking requires a ground to walk on, but we’re not going to say that the ground is walking whenever a person walks, are we?

    Similarly waving the hands while talking may help a person express him or herself, but is it really an interesting question to ask whether the hands themselves are thinking? Certainly the brain is involved in waving the hands, and it may help the brain concentrate on expression (which is more than thinking), but it seems much simpler and appropriate to say that the waving is an aid to expression than that the hands are actually thinking themselves. Also I suspect that if a person who says that is tied up, they would find a way to express themselves. We shouldn’t base our philosophy on anecdotal statements.

    Do we see what a person is thinking as we watch him move pieces on a chessboard? Certainly not. We don’t see the many scenarios that the player had in mind, how many other moves he considered, how many moves ahead he considered for each possible move he considered, etc. What we see on the chessboard is the conclusion of his thoughts, we don’t really see his thoughts at all. This is similar whether we see a mathematical proof, literature, or many of the other end results of thinking. We mustn’t confuse information with thought.

    Also, as far as speaking, I find that many times the words that come out of my mouth are different from what I meant to say; sometimes I say the exact opposite! Then someone has to correct me, or ask me if that’s what I really wanted to say. There are two different tasks the brain is working on, one is the thinking itself, the other is getting the mouth and voice box to say the words. In between is the translation of the thoughts into language. I find that many times I struggle to find the right word for what I’m thinking. But once again, talking about the operation of the brain is best left to neuroscientists, not philosophers. Certainly neuroscientists will tell us that the brain is behind it all, the thinking, the translation of thoughts into language and the final expression of those thoughts with the mouth or with the hand writing, etc. So why does the philosopher have an issue?


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