In Clark’s impressive article The Extended Mind, the author uses the example of an Alzheimer patient to elaborate that the material out of human’s physical body boundaries, in this case Otto’s Notebook, should also be considered in the cognitive process. This statement is astonishing, yet persuasive, since the author has eliminated almost all disputations that why couldn’t the “Notebook”, to certain extent, be regarded as the analogue as regular human memory.
But I have some tiny doubts about this brilliant theory:
1) Alzheimer patient Otto is an extreme example, whose brain has almost totally lost its capability of memorizing so the Notebook here takes on a complete substitution. But if we consider a bit general situation, then it seems that so many things play more or less the role of that “notebook” in everyone’s daily life, thus becoming the so called “extended cognition” and taking part in the cognitive process. Then where’s the border of this extension? To which point does this process end?
2) Back to Otto’s example. As an Alzheimer patient, Otto can only remember things for a very limited time. Then even if he wrote the information down before, like the address of a theatre, then when he heard something related again, how could he remember the fact that he heard this before and his “writing down” action, which led him to check the notebook?
For the first question, I find in Clark’s another article, Surprising The Mind, some statements can explain. Discussions on whether the mind is extended and how it works come from and aim for practice and application in reality. External material symbols are meaningful and regarded as “extended cognition” because they have effects on humans to make judgements and then take actions. So the “extended cognition” should only extend to those symbol systems closely related to people’s actions, and the cognitive process ends as soon as the judgments are made and actions are about to being taken.
Calendar is a good example. Calendar is a database storing number information, like date and week, which is hard for people to precisely remember all of them. People will check the calendar what’s the day of a certain date, or to see whether they are available for a date. They can then take notes on the page, which serves as a reminder when that day comes. By the definition of Clark’s, calendar is a kind of “Notebook”, an extended cognitive process.
Calendar is a symbol system, with concrete contents that every one living on the earth share and acknowledge its meaning (like the custom of 7 days a week, 12 months a year). In Chinese culture, as well as some others I believe, the calendar functions as more than a “database” or a “reminder” in people’s life.
This is a typical page of the calendar used in old times, while many people especially in rural regions still use today. As you can see, a lot of information is presented on the page, among which the “auspicious” and “unpropitious” categories value the most. In traditional Chinese culture, owe to the season, the position of a star in the sky and some other reasons (from generations’ life experience to pure superstition), every date has its own features, according to which people should and should not do some activities. All these information is decided by an official agency (such as an Imperial Astronomical Observatory in old times), printed on the calendar, and then annually issued to the whole country.
The most common example is marriage. Until at most twenty years ago, it is a quite rare incident in China that a couple get married on a random date. Elderly members in the family will carefully check the calendar, pick an auspicious-for-marriage date, then the couple is allowed to get married.
This cultural tradition, materialized and reflected on the calendar, controls every one’s significant events from sowing the field, moving into new house, going for traveling, to even cutting hair in old times. The calendar here is clearly an extended cognitive process, as Otto’s Notebook, weighing a lot when people making decisions. This symbol system, at most time completely makes no sense why today is great for cutting hair but tomorrow is not, is collectively formed as part of the culture and everyone accepts. The calendar is just an external storage, which people will turn to and retrieve information from when necessary. In fact, there’s a group of people who can really memorize all these stuff and the “theory” behind (there’s an occupation for these “professional” people, usually respected!). In this case, the calendar serves the same as these people’s memory.
This role of the calendar as an extended cognitive process, however, is also dynamic. For most young people now, they don’t buy these “auspicious” and “unpropitious” stuff any more, and obviously they will not decide when to cut hair or when to have a date by the information on the calendar. So the calendar here doesn’t function as it used to do. When the information has no effect on people’s actions, the calendar ceases to be part of the extended cognitive process, even though all information still printed and announced as usual. Then some other things may replace the calendar as extended cognition to determine young people’s behavior, like constellation.