Minds do not extend, but activities do

I was intrigued to see that Jeff Wagman and Tony Chemero have a chapter out declaring “the end of the debate over extended cognition” (2014). “Oh, good,” I thought, “finally some sensible souls have stepped in to put an end to this nonsense.” But, alas, this chapter will not end the debate. It is merely the latest in a line of arguments declaring victory for one side.

The trouble is, the extended cognition debate is not one that can be ended by one side proving the other side wrong. The disagreement is not over empirical facts, but over a priori assumptions about what words like “mind” mean, or ought to mean. The problems here can be traced to the very first sentence in Clark and Chalmers’s (1998) paper introducing the concept of the extended mind, where they pose the question: “Where does the mind stop and the rest of the world begin?” This question commits a category mistake (one that Gilbert Ryle would have diagnosed): it assumes that minds are a kind of thing in the world that can be detected, when in fact “minds” are nothing more than labels we use to describe one another’s behaviour. The question is incoherent. To end the debate, we need to give up on this misguided search for the physical substrate of “minds”, and, instead, start to understand the world in terms of activities. I will here set out the beginnings of a case for this.

Otto’s notebook

The standard argument for the extended mind thesis is Clark and Chalmers’s thought experiment, the “Otto’s notebook” argument. Otto, who suffers from Alzheimer’s, has to write down the address for the Museum of Modern Art in his notebook and consult this note every time he wants to go there. Meanwhile, Inga, who does not suffer from Alzheimer’s, does not require this external memory aid but recalls the address using her own “biological memory”. Since Otto’s notebook is, we are assured, playing the same function as Inga’s brain, we have no reason to reject the conclusion that Otto’s notebook is literally part of his mind.

There are some severe issues with this thought experiment. Here is one. We are told that Otto has Alzheimer’s, which means he has to write things down in his notebook. Yet apparently he has no problem remembering to carry the notebook around with him at all times, or remembering how to consult it, or remembering what piece of information he is looking for, remembering what the task was that originally caused him to consult his notebook. We are to assume, I suppose, that, having once consulted his notebook and seen that MoMA is on 53rd St, Otto will happily set out from his starting point (where? we are not told, although it is stated that Inga is within walking distance), not once forgetting his purpose along the way. Otto, in short, is a perfectly functional, healthy individual, bar an unfortunate inability to remember certain facts. The form of Alzheimer’s at play here is, to say the least, unusual. This is hardly a realistic description of any actual condition.

Of course, it’s easy to be pedantic about thought experiments—to take issue with their simplifying assumptions. In this case, though, the objection is more than merely pedantic. The objection is that this particular thought experiment leaves out certain details that matter. The whole argument relies on Inga and Otto being identical except in one crucial respect: one keeps her memories on the inside (in her brain), the other keeps his memories on the outside (in his notebook). What is left out is any account of the processes by which Otto and Inga supposedly achieve their identical goals. It is merely asserted that both have “access” to their respective store of memory, and the fact that “accessing” a notebook can be described using the same verb as “accessing” one’s own memory is supposed to ensure that these are, in fact, one and the same phenomenon, and that Otto’s notebook is, therefore, part of his mind. Colour me underwhelmed.[1] The point here is: once we start to understand the processes properly, it simply won’t matter which components of the process are part of the “mind” and which components aren’t. Such labels will not be doing any explanatory work.

Jimmie’s Mass

We can contrast the vignette about Otto’s notebook with an account by Oliver Sacks of an actual neurological patient, Jimmie G., whom Sacks dubs “the lost mariner” (chapter 2 in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat; the chapter was earlier published in the New York Review of Books). Jimmie G. does not have Alzheimer’s. Sacks diagnoses him as having Korsakov’s syndrome, a memory condition caused by alcohol abuse. Jimmie has lost the ability to form new memories, and believes he is still living in 1945 following the end of the Second World War, although Sacks first meets him in the mid-1970s. Jimmie is unable to remember what happened moments before. He is trapped in a perpetual present, and is apparently, for the most part, not even aware of his condition. The turning point in Sacks’s account comes when Sacks asks whether Jimmie has, in some profound sense, lost his soul:

One tended to speak of him, instinctively, as a spiritual casualty—a “lost soul”: was it possible that he had really been “de-souled” by a disease? “Do you think he has a soul?” I once asked the Sisters. They were outraged by my question, but could see why I asked it. “Watch Jimmie in chapel,” they said, “and judge for yourself.”

I did, and I was moved, profoundly moved and impressed, because I saw here an intensity and steadiness of attention and concentration that I had never seen before in him or conceived him capable of. I watched him pray, I watched him at Mass, I watched him kneel and take the Sacrament on his tongue, and could not doubt the fullness and totality of Communion, the perfect alignment of his spirit with the spirit of the Mass. Fully, intensely, quietly, in the quietude of absolute concentration and attention, he entered and partook of the Holy Communion. He was wholly held, absorbed, by a feeling. There was no forgetting, no Korsakov’s then, nor did it seem possible or imaginable that there should be; for he was no longer at the mercy of a faulty and fallible mechanism—that of meaningless sequences and memory traces—but was absorbed in an act, an act of his whole being, which carried feeling and meaning in an organic continuity and unity, a continuity and unity so seamless it could not permit any break.

Sacks hints at an explanation of why it is that Jimmie appears to find his bearing in the taking of the Communion: ‘The same depth of absorption and attention was to be seen in relation to music and art: he had no difficulty, I noticed, “following” music or simple dramas, for every moment in music and art refers to, contains, other moments.’

What Sacks seems to suggest here is that persisting, temporally extend structures in the environment can support and give form to behaviour. The Mass has a standard structure, a structure that was present earlier in Jimmie’s life. And it was in the context of this structure that Jimmie’s behaviour came to be shaped. Jimmie learnt how to conduct himself appropriately in the context of the Mass, and this Mass-specific behaviour remains intact. Even if Jimmie cannot remember how he got into the chapel five minutes ago, he can see that he’s in a Mass, and knows what to do at any moment. But as soon as he leaves the chapel and steps outside he will find himself in a context that does not contain such a formal structure. He will find himself in a novel situation for which his behavioural repertoire is no longer appropriately shaped by past learning. He will, once again, be lost.

It would make little sense to talk about what’s going on here in terms of the extended mind (although this is precisely the kind of situation, one would think, that an extended mind concept should be applicable to). Is the Mass part of Jimmie’s extended cognitive system? No, the Mass predates Jimmie’s existence, and has had the same formal structure throughout Jimmie’s life. It is this very unchanging nature of the Mass which means that Jimmie’s behaviour can remain intact relative to it. To talk of an extended mind is to imply that activities necessarily emanate from within an individual actor. The reality is that activities constitute a setting into which animals find themselves deposited: we encounter ongoing activities from birth or even before. And it is only through exploratory action and engagement that we learn to take part in these activities, to take control of them, and to alter their course. (For a partial discussion of this focused on human emotional developmental, see Greenwood, 2013.)

Extended activities

Wagman and Chemero do not talk about Masses or notebooks. The activities they discuss are those involved in a particular type of perception research: work on dynamic touch. An important motivating insight for this work comes from Merleau-Ponty: a blind man using a cane does not perceive the cane itself but perceives the world at the end of the cane. A dynamic touch study might go like this: a subject comes into the lab, is blindfolded and laden down with a backpack and is handed a stick; the subject is then asked to use the stick to poke about at a sloped surface and is asked to give a verbal judgement about whether they will be able to stand on that surface. All good fun, and it turns out that we’re quite good at doing this sort of task. Wagman and Chemero want to use this kind of result to claim that minds do indeed extend. The results, they say, “suggest that both the weighted backpack and the handheld wooden dowel are experienced as part of the body.” But, of course, this is of no consequence to cognitivist opponents of the extended mind. It claims only that sticks can be experienced as parts of bodies. But one of the things that is at issue is whether it is reasonable to talk of minds as extending into bodies in the first place. Wagman and Chemero simply assume that it is reasonable, and want their opponents to agree with their assumption.

What these kinds of results do show is that the act of perceiving is one that necessarily spans animal and environment. It is activities that are distributed, not minds. And activities are the kinds of things that we can investigate empirically. We can take away or disrupt some component of the overall system and observe whether or not this affects the outcome of the activity. Indeed, if a given disruption has an effect on the behaviour, this is a good reason to deduce that the thing that was disturbed was an integral part of the activity, and instrumental in the individual’s control of their behaviour. But it is simply not helpful to insist that whatever is integral to an activity is therefore part of an “extended mind” or “extended cognitive system”.

The extended mind metaphor does hit on an essential truth: classical cognitivism’s view of “mind” is inadequate because it simply assumes that all behaviour (or all interesting behaviour) is the output of symbol-manipulation processes. But the fact that cognitivism is too narrow is no reason to replace one problematic use of “mind” with another that only creates new problems. The extended mind metaphor has outlived its usefulness.


  1. Beware philosophers bearing thought experiments. Especially when those thought experiments rely on tenuous claims about real-life neurological conditions. Ask this: Does my philosopher have the appropriate clinical experience to be making pronouncements on these matters?
  2. If we really want to end the debate over extended cognition, we should simply stop arguing about whether “minds” or “cognition” might “extend” into objects. This is a language game that can have no winners because the participants refuse to agree on the rules (see also Sabrina’s old post on this). Instead, we should agree that behaviour—acting in the world, engaging socially with others, and all the rest—involves activities that extend across resources both internal to and external to organisms. The task for psychologists, then, is to identify the structures that are involved in putting these activities together.


[1] For further entertaining discussion of Otto’s notebook, I recommend Jerry Fodor’s (2009) review of Andy Clark’s book.


  • Clark, A. & Chalmers, D. (1998) The extended mindAnalysis 58(1):7–19.
  • Fodor, J. (2009) Where is my mind? London Review of Books 31(3):13–15.
  • Greenwood, J. (2013) Contingent transcranialism and deep functional cognitive integration: The case of human emotional ontogenesis. Philosophical Psychology 26(3):420–436. doi: 10.1080/09515089.2011.633752
  • Sacks, O. (1985) The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. London: Duckworth.
  • Wagman, J. B. & Chemero, A. (2014) The end of the debate over extended cognition, in Solymosi, T. & Shook, J. R. (Eds.) Neuroscience, Neurophilosophy and Pragmatism: Brains at Work with the World. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. doi: 10.1057/9781137376077.0012

One thought on “Minds do not extend, but activities do

  1. modvs1

    I never really appreciated the Otto vs. Inga parable. For me it’s nothing more than an example of the ho-hum, quotidian use of (typically, externally formatted) representational resources: books, maps, diagrams, instructions, etc. They could have just as well said- “Inga’s friend Helga is a qualified chef, she can cook any variation of duck confit in her proverbial sleep. Inga on the other hand, has never cooked duck confit. She’ll need to consult a recipe in order to obtain the right kind of ‘cognitive coordination’ needed to complete the task….” And then, with that in mind, you might wander about the sneaky irony of a theory of extended cognition itself. With respect to what goal directed activities does a theory of cognition-bleeding-out-into-the-environment provide what cognitive coordination for? Presumably you could use it to facilitate your interactions with cognition itself (whatever that means?), like using the assembly instructions to ease to the frustration of assembling flat-packed Ikea furniture. It would seem that the notion of extended cognition fails to be a useful ‘action oriented’ notion. I’m sure Clark at some level appreciates this (forget about Chalmers), but if you’re career were to take a turn for the worse for admitting so, it’s probably something you’d want kept under the carpet.



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