Humans use tools and technologies, no matter how primitive, to facilitate and increase their cognitive brain function. This capability is particularly important because the process of storing and recalling information in our memories, either long-term or short-term, can at times be problematic. For example, the case of Otto demonstrates someone whose memory does not allow him to properly retain information, and thus he relies on his notebook to function as his memory (Clark and Chalmers).
Microsoft’s OneNote offers another example of how technology can potentially extend cognition in this way. The fundamental behavior of taking notes with this software, which Rebecca and Becky both use, represents a number of different symbolic and cognitive-offloading processes.
Before we can take notes, we have to process the information presented in whatever lecture we’re attending. The professor communicates information to us—by using, say, the English language or images in a PowerPoint. We have to translate the information communicated into another sign system—that of the written English language. This requires knowledge of the English alphabet, grammar, lexicon, context, and so on. When taking these notes, we might draw some tentative conclusions of our own, creating new meanings by making connections between the ideas presented.
We write these ideas down using an artifact that is a token of a type—a particular instance of a program installed on our laptops, which are made up of a number of different technologies, from the keyboard to the graphics card to the RAM. We previously learned the association between the purple N icon and the OneNote software. Even though the icon is only tangentially related to the process of note-taking because it includes stylized lined paper (see image), we still know from conventional use that clicking the icon will open the software we need. Of course, this entire process functions on our understanding of the various sign systems involved, such as the English language and the keyboard interface.
These artifacts help us offload our cognitive burden in a number of ways. We are in effect storing our memories in these digital files. If we didn’t have these tools, each of us would have to store all of the information in our mind, based on the constraints of time and the sequence in which the ideas were presented. But thanks to these artifacts, we don’t have to mentally store and recall as much. We can instead store these lecture memories externally and access them whenever we want to by opening OneNote and drawing on our symbolic talents to read the material. This facilitates new and abstract thought, freeing up our brains to use those ideas in more complex ways than simple recall, such as to solve problems.
This file can also be used to distribute cognition and communicate with others. We can email the notes to another person who can read them and learn from them. That person will need the proper tools—a computer and the software, for example—to access that information. And only a person with the proper contextual knowledge will be able to understand the full meaning. The note-reader has to be part of the English-speaking community, for example. Additionally, the notes may, for instance, make shorthand references to earlier content, so the note-reader must understand that material already covered in the class.
But is this process truly cognition? Can the mind actually be extended to external technologies? As discussed in “Cognitive Offloading,” terms such as the “extended mind” and “distributed cognition” are somewhat misleading (Dror, and Harnad). In some ways, it seems contradictory to most of what we’ve learned thus far to suggest that the act of cognition occurs outside of the brain. Depending on the nature of the sign, whether icon, index, or symbol, there may be no apparent connection between the sign and its object. According to Dror et al, it seems like a cognizer is needed to make that connection—to perform the cognitive exercise of interpretation and understanding.
External artifacts, individuals, and so on can both trigger and impact acts of cognition. But the ultimate source of interpretation appears to be someone who can participate in generative, recursive, and at times unpredictable processes of thinking and creating meaning.
The “extended mind” theory seems to be a nuanced explanation of how cultural associations are stored, recalled, and utilized, whether through technology or human organisms. In this sense, what are the main distinctions between this theory and something like cultural progress?
Clark, Andy. Supersizing the Mind: Embodiment, Action, and Cognitive Extension (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, USA, 2008).
Clark, Andy, and David Chalmers. “The Extended Mind.” Analysis 58, no. 1 (January 1, 1998): 7–19.
Dror, Itiel E., and Stevan Harnad. “Offloading Cognition Onto Cognitive Technology.” In Cognition Distributed: How Cognitive Technology Extends Our Minds, edited by Itiel E. Dror and Stevan Harnad, 1–23. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing, 2008.