06 June 2010

'Supersizing the Mind' by Andy Clark (2008)

At the MIT Press book store I found the latest book by Andy Clark (author of 'Natural Born Cyborgs'), entitled 'Supersizing the Mind' (2008, Oxford University Press).  This book is less accessible than his earlier work, as it largely seems to be addressing various arguments and criticisms of the 'embodied mind' proposition that he and David Chalmers first raised in a 1998 paper.

The notion of the 'embodied mind' is that our cognitive processes frequently use resources 'outside our heads' to perform the task.  A simple example would be long division, a task which we learn to do on paper.  For most of us, it would be virtually impossible to do this task with large numbers 'in our head'.  This does not mean that the paper or pencil is a 'cognitive agent' but that the cognitive system includes paper and pencil in its sphere.

This book has some interesting extensions of this idea, such as the role of gestures.  Some research finds that active gesturing can aid in certain cognitive tasks.  "The physical act of gesturing, Goldin-Meadow suggests, plans an active (not merely expressive) role in learning, reasoning, and cognitive change by providing an alternative (analog, motoric, visuospatial) representational format." (p. 125).

There is also some intriguing information about the ready ability we exhibit to 'spread the load' of cognition by reconfiguring problems to avoid having to keep all the information available in our mind - rather it can be written down, or simply referenced in the real world rather than having to store a complete model 'in our heads'. Clark's conclusion is that "the appeal to embodiment, if this is correct, signals not a radical shift as much as a natural progression in the maturing of the sciences of the mind." (p. 219).