Does your mind extend?

Where is my mind? Is it located inside my head? Or could my mind instead extend into the environment around me?

Andy Clark once remarked that we make the world smart so we don’t have to be. What he meant was that we (along with many other animals) alter and transform our environments in ways that enable us to do things that would prove difficult or indeed impossible without such transformations.

For creatures like us, these transformations can range from the trivial (think about how the layout of a kitchen facilitates the cooking of food) to the truly profound (notations such as alphabets).

Yet if the environment is not simply a passive player in our lives but can instead be structured and modified so as to play an active and driving role, then this has significant consequences for how we understand ourselves. In particular, it impacts on how we understand mind and experience.

For example, think of someone whose reliance on their smartphone or other piece of technological equipment is so constant that they appear to do little without it. If Clark is right and the environment can play an active, driving role, then such a device could be regarded as more than simply a tool used by the person to perform a task. Rather this device could be understood to be a genuine part of that person’s mind.

This striking claim has been given eloquent treatment by Clark and Chalmers. Christening their view Active Externalism (or what is more commonly known as Extended Mind), Clark and Chalmers have argued that objects and structures in our environments could be as equally deserving of the title of mentality as anything found inside the skull. If so, then mental states and cognitive processes can, on certain occasions and under particular circumstances, be understood as partially extending into the environment. In short, your mind is not confined to your skull.

In a new paper, my colleague (Karim Zahidi) and I criticise this view. In particular, we argue that both those who think minds do extend into the environment and those who think minds are confined to the skull confuse what are otherwise separate and distinct questions.

Consider, for example, writing a letter. Most people would agree (I hope) that writing a letter is a mental activity. You need to think about what to write. You also usually have a reason for writing (perhaps you are writing to your boss to tell her why you are quitting your job). Yet we can ask: what is it about the act of putting pen to paper that explains why this act is a mental or cognitive one?


On the other hand, we can also wonder about the causal processes at work whenever you or I write a letter. For example, we can take it as given that, when I am writing a letter, there must be a whole set of neural processes active inside my head. I also have to pick up a pen and use it to make marks on a page. In which case, we can ask: is there something in common between these ‘in-the-head’ processes and those ‘outside-the-head’ processes?

Curiously, both defenders and detractors of Active Externalism think that answering the second question helps answer the first.

Defenders claim, for example, that if there is something in common between the causal processes inside my head and those processes outside the head, then Active Externalism can be true.

Alternatively, detractors claim that if there is nothing in common between these bodily internal processes and bodily external processes, then Active Externalism is false.

By contrast, we present an alternative ‘wide view’. We argue that what makes an activity cognitive or mental is that it agrees with the sorts of wider, public practices and conventions within which most of us spend our waking lives.

What makes writing a letter a mental activity, for example, is that fits the criteria that you, I or anyone else use to determine what counts as writing a letter. This is true regardless of whether there is or there is not something in common between bodily internal and bodily external processes (though we tend to think there will not be something in common between such processes).

If our alternative ‘wide view’ is correct, then your mind is neither confined to your skull nor does it extend into your environment. Instead, mentality is an unbounded, non-localisable phenomenon.


One consequence of our ‘wide view’ is that the debate over Active Externalism requires, not solution, but rather dissolution.

There of course remain interesting questions to be asked about how we explain mentality. Perhaps explaining how I am able to remember the time of the last train does require appealing to how I use my smartphone. This doesn’t demonstrate Active Externalism, however (at least as most people understand the term ‘Active Externalism’). It rather demonstrates that explaining our mental abilities can (on some occasions but not on others) require appealing to ‘outside-the-head’ factors.

Going wide about mentality, as we do, thus offers the flexibility to explain mentality in ways that can (and should) make liberal use of whatever factors, be they internal, external or some combination of the two, can help unravel some of the complexities of human thought.

The full paper can be read here.