The Frontal Cortex

The iPhone Mind

Here’s the philosopher David Chalmers, arguing that it’s time we expand our definition of the “mind”:

“The key idea is that when bits of the environment are hooked up to your cognitive system in the right way, they are, in effect, part of the mind, part of the cognitive system. So, say I’m rearranging Scrabble tiles on a rack. This is very close to being analogous to the situation when I’m doing an anagram in my head. In one case the representations are out in the world, in the other case they’re in here. We say doing an anagram on a rack ought be regarded as a cognitive process, a process of the mind, even though it’s out there in the world.”

This is where the iPhone comes in, as a more contemporary example of how the extended mind works.

“A whole lot of my cognitive activities and my brain functions have now been uploaded into my iPhone. It stores a whole lot of my beliefs, phone numbers, addresses, whatever. It acts as my memory for these things. It’s always there when I need it.”

Chalmers even claims it holds some of his desires.

“I have a list of all of my favorite dishes at the restaurant we go to all the time in Canberra. I say, OK, what are we going to order? Well, I’ll pull up the iPhone – these are the dishes we like here. It’s the repository of my desires, my plans. There’s a calendar, there’s an iPhone calculator, and so on. It’s even got a little decision maker that comes up, yes or no.”

It sounds crazy, right? That’s because we locate consciousness entirely in the brain, in the three pounds of wet stuff inside the head. We digest food with our stomach and intestines, and we “exist” only because a 100 billion neurons are arranged in a particular cellular sequence. This “astonishing hypothesis” is now just common sense.

But what if, as Chalmers and philosophers like Alva Noe argue, the mind is an extended organ? I’m particularly fond of Noe’s money metaphor, which he uses in a forthcoming book:

There’s nothing about this piece of paper in my hand, taken in isolation, that makes it one dollar. It would be ludicrous to search for the physical or molecular correlates of its monetary value. The monetary value, after all, is not intrinsic to the piece of paper itself, but depends on the existence of practices and conventions and institutions. The marks and francs and pesos or lire in your wallet didn’t change physically when they, from one day to the next, ceased to be legal tender. The change was as real as it gets, but it wasn’t a physical change in the money.

Noe provocatively suggests that the conscious mind can only exist as an extended organ, stuffed to the brim with language and other by-products of culture. A brain by itself is like a euro in America: mostly useless.

So here’s the question: is the brain like money or is it like the intestines? Can the function of the organ be understood in isolation? That’s a question I don’t think most scientists think enough about. I guess that’s why we have philosophers.


  1. #1 Anon
    January 14, 2009

    Maybe you locate consciousness entirely within the brain. I much prefer the Radical Behaviorist notion (yes, there are some of us still alive) by which consciousness, to the extent one can meaningfully talk about it, is “located” in the behavior, public and private, of the whole organism acting in a social context. That which we call a mind is the emergent property of behaving (rather than “the mind is what the brain does”, the mind is what the person does); it is not causal but caused, a fuzzy category of public and private behaviors which allows us to speak of consciousness as inferred from observation of that fuzzy set of behaviors.

    Nice to see Chalmers catching up to Skinner.

  2. #2 KevinH
    January 14, 2009

    I’d say that neuroscientists implicity agree with the weak form of this argument. We don’t study the brain in isolation, we study how it responds to the environment. Light is necessary for the eyes to function, sound for the ears, etc. That’s well accepted and should satisfy Noe.

    I’d say however that Chalmers is being a bit more provocative. He is almost saying that light is a part of sight, but I think he would distinguish himself form this idea by saying he is talking about a special form of physical object which can hold complex patterns. I’m not sure I agree with him. A meaningful definition of mind isn’t simply the storage of patterns, then a single written word would have to be said to have a mind. Rather pattern storage is just one requirement.

    There’s also the problem of individuality. If you remind me of a dentist appointment, or teach me a fact, do we have two minds or one? It seems to me to keep the definition of mind meaningful we would have to say two. In that way, even though the iPhone certainly affects your mind, I’d say that considering it part of your mind starts to degrade the meaning of a definition of mind.

  3. #3 Anibal
    January 14, 2009

    Very nice post and i believe you have to explore more philsophical related themes like this one.

    My answer is more like intestines, but Noe, Chalmers and Clark put bold, sound and powerful arguments to the contrary.

  4. #4 Kurt
    January 14, 2009

    Actually I’ve always hated the whole concept of “mind.” I think it complicates matters far more than they need to be. There is no mind that is a separate physical entity from the brain (see Damasio’s “Descartes’ Error”). “Mind” is merely a metaphor for the processes of the brain, and while it may be useful in thinking about some issues, such as how we interact with the iPhone, it is fundamentally imprecise and, in my opinion, skews our understanding of mental life into this ethereal realm that is utterly unnecessary. The brain is complicated enough that its physical nature allows for all of the things embodied by the “mind” idea, but they are still the result of the biology of the brain. For example, we can talk in somewhat concrete terms about how hallucinations are produced by the brain, so when we look at the iPhone and “see” all of these “mind” functions, even if we can’t talk about the exact sequence of synaptic firings that produce that perception, we can still root them in the firing of neurons within our own physical brains.

    Here’s just one example of how the idea of “mind” has adverse effects on our world: the way we deal with mental illness is so utterly ridiculous because it is not generally viewed as being solely the result of physical processes in the brain gone awry. The mind concept has turned mental illness into an intangible faultiness of the spirit or will, which isn’t deserving of insurance coverage.

    The idea of mind that can only exist as an “extended organ” is certainly interesting and could be a useful philosophical tool, but let’s ground it in the brain. To answer your question, the “function of the brain” cannot be understood in isolation simply because it never exists in isolation (and the idea of a lone “function” is also pretty loose). It is the product of our constantly changing sensory perceptions (the outside world) interacting with our stored sensory perceptions (memory) and the genetics and epigenetics that result in the wiring and electrical properties of our neuronal circuits (including, importantly, their plasticity). A synapse or simple circuit, however, can be understood in isolation to a very large extent. This is the level at which most neuroscientists work, and while they should all implicity understand that isolating these circuits fundamentally disrupts what we can say about the whole brain, you’re right that most of them do not give enough thought to these philosophical issues.

  5. #5 Giorgio Ganis
    January 14, 2009

    Isn’t this what the distributed cognition researchers at UCSD (and others) have been saying for a long time?

  6. #6 HP
    January 14, 2009

    The notion of an extended mind has been around for a long time.

    In Plato’s Phaedrus, written around 370 BC, Socrates tells of an old Egyptian legend of the god Theuth and King Thamus. The god has just invented writing, and is trying convince Thamus to introduce this new invention to mankind. Theuth tells Thamus, “[I]t is an elixir of memory and wisdom that I have discovered.” [source] But Thamus replies, “You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding.” [source]

    Socrates, and by extension Plato, argue the dualist position on the side of King Thamus. And thus, 2400 years later, most people regard the the notion of an extended mind as counterintuitive. But the idea itself has quite a pedigree.

  7. #7 Riley
    January 14, 2009

    As Holland writes on the confirmation of identity through the use of technology we can see how the photographic technology has contributed to that. Holland writes, we confirmed and explored ‘that sense of selfhood which is an indispensable feature of a modern sensibility.’ The use of the search engine and or iphone is metaphorically applicable to the search for self. The photograph itself fits also within that metaphor. Holland continues,

    ‘The twentieth-century consumer-led economy has shifted these new individuals away from a culture based on work and self-discipline to one based on libidinous gratification which encourages us all to identify our pleasures in order to develop and refine them… These changes are reflected in the images we produce of ourselves, the uses we make of them, and our search through the Internet for material relevant to ourselves.’

    Wells, L., (2004). Photography. New York: Routledge. P 119.

  8. #8 A.K.
    January 14, 2009

    Remember Lashley’s engrams? Merlin Donald uses the term “exograms” to describe bits of externally stored memory. Exograms are made by humans, and change the humans who use them. From cave drawings, to clay tablets, to money, to the iPhone: all are exographic representations, and all have produced profound cultural change. Two of Donald’s books make for wonderful reading: “Origins of the Modern Mind”, 1991, and “A Mind So Rare”, 2001.
    To H.P.: When the god Theuth convinced King Thamus to give humans the gift of writing, did he know that learning to read and write would fundamentally change how the human brain is wired?
    Whether the elixir is of memory or of reminding, no doubt, it’s a powerful cocktail. Ask anyone who is addicted to their iPhone.

  9. #9 Chuk
    January 14, 2009

    I think the mind is like money, and I really like the way Hofstadter describes it in I Am a Strange Loop.

  10. #10 glow owl (pb)
    January 14, 2009

    thanks for bringing this topic into public discourse. 🙂

    the question as posed (is the brain like money or is it like intestines) is misleading. money is an object whose meaning and value are conferred upon it; intestines are organic matter which serve a plurality of functions but only in coordination with the entire body and all the chemicals, hormones, synaptic firings, and so on that go along with any biological process. neither has meaning or value, or is able to “perform its function” in isolation from the system of which it is a member.

    as jonah pointed out in his first book and his previous post, it is a dialectic.

    so is the brain. the brain is unable to function without being embodied… the brain -IS- the body entire, and although we can spatially locate a mass that seems to ‘the brain,’ it would be a mistake to say that the identity of that mass is entirely distinct from all the other components of the bod). further, the brain is unable to function without be in the world. (empirical support for this: the effect of sensory deprivation on the body. it leads to death.) the brain IS the world entire (at least as it comes into contact with it) — this is in support of (my understanding of) chalmers, i should say. there are lines of demarcation, but they become fuzzier and fuzzier the more you look at it.

    this does raise a slippery-slope with regards to identity. where does the (your) brain begin and end? are you distinct from your surroundings? from other persons? if so…how? what makes you, you?

    (and this is just the brain we’re talking about. which i suppose we’re taking to be synonomous with mind…)

  11. #11 Richard
    January 14, 2009

    It seems to me that pretty much everything in the universe can be considered like Noe’s dollar bill. Consider a star: Is it a thing of grandeur exhibiting beauty and profound physical processes? Or just some kind of unruly seething mass of matter and energy that means nothing. I would say it has no meaning unless considered by a conscious mind. The same can be said of a brain. In the absence of minds contemplating it– including the mind that dwells in it– how could it have any particular meaning? It’s just a soggy biological mass. Seems to me that Niels Bohr’s idea of complementarity comes into play here: that many events and issues can be looked at in fundamentally contradictory ways. Both ways are correct, and until we come up with a deeper unifying meaning, we’re stuck with both. As whether the brain is like an intestine, why just the other day my girlfriend told me my brain was full of crap. So maybe that view is right too!

  12. #12 Lee Pirozzi
    January 14, 2009

    Too much input – into the necessary functional output –
    The ears are too close of a passage to the brain:
    and from evolution we have not immunized ourselves with
    respect to their once survival instinct importance. I can wiggle my right ear with an admissable degree of conscious movement. I believe that the ears with their tenacle hairs within have purpose beyond our recognition. They are an unexplored pathway as to the supreme message center to the brain they could provide. The future will recognize this with sublingual at the same time.

    Yes, my nose twitches and any good haunted Celtic is prophetic. Hopefully without my graphic dreams.

    Anyway, Happy New Year – may you find as much stimulation
    as I plan to dig up as an artist. Not dead yet, and if this leaves Jonah open to comment – beware the season of the prophetesse – Lee Pirozzi

  13. #13 ringo
    January 15, 2009

    So the knife and the cooking pot would be extensions of the intestine, much like text and the iphone are extensions of the brain.

    Are illiterates on a raw-meme diet?

    Without cultural context, could anyone really be full of crap?

    Is that food-processor/word-processor thing more than just a coincidence?

  14. #14 littlebuzz
    January 15, 2009

    The mind is just a pervasive electrical buzz. It’s the perceptible involuntary squeal the brain emits when tickled by external and internal stimuli. Genetics, society, culture etc. provide the input, and the brain provides the medium through which the whole subjective drama is played. And what a gaudy self-obsessed melodrama it so often is… Consciousness is its attempt at being coherent and melodic amid all the garbled nonsense of white background noise.

  15. #15 Neuromancer
    January 15, 2009

    I basically agree with glow owl : we can’t draw a clear, neat line between the mind and the world. What we call the mind is usually understood as what “makes” the thinking about everything else, but I don’t see any well-defined border between the subject (“mind”), the action (“thinking”), the object (the “world”) and the result (“thoughts”). As Richard says, there’s no “world” as we understand it without a meaning, and no meaning without a mind. It’s all tangled. I think identity and the sentiment of individuality can simply be understood as some kind of patterns evolved to fit the communication needs of complex lifeforms on Earth. They are the base bricks of our specific cognitive and social architecture, but not a requirement of cognition in itself.

  16. #16 glow owl
    January 15, 2009

    wow, well said, neuromancer. that was illuminating. !

  17. #17 jb
    January 15, 2009

    Mind is the big deal in Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhism has formal investigations one does ‘on the cushion’ to investigate the nature of one’s mind. The idea here is that everyone has a mind and one can and should look at it and discover for one’s self its nature rather than beleive the teachings. These exercises are called Mahamudra (great symbol or seal) investigations and surprisingly, there is a good online description called “Mahamudra Vision” by Veena Gokhale, about a weekend workshop in which the investigations were done.

  18. #18 Marco
    January 28, 2009

    What’s the difference between an iPhone and a piece of paper? Paper is only external memory, while an iPhone can run algorithms on its own. Does that mean running software on your computer is like adding a room onto your mind? Should I consider the server room at Google part of my mind as well?

  19. #19 berlin
    March 1, 2009


  20. #20 fussball
    March 2, 2009

    Gute Arbeit hier! Gute Inhalte.

  21. #21 gesundheit
    March 13, 2009

    Sehr wertvolle Informationen! Empfehlen!

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