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iPhone on the Brain: Technology and the Extended Mind

Like Diana, I too am in the middle finals week. But as a science major, I am mired exams instead of papers, and my brain has been clutter of symbols and numbers — amino acid structures, Fourier series, formulas galore! With this memorization frenzy, the Extended Mind hypothesis is sounding mighty attractive.

David Chalmers and Andy Clark’s paper on The Extended Mind was first published in 1998, but a more recent interview in The Philosopher’s Magazine where Chalmers alludes to the iPhone has brought their ideas into discussion again. The Extended Mind essentially states that the technology we utilize can be seen as extensions of out minds. In Chalmers’ own words:

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…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.

Of course, it’s not only trendy gadgets made by Apple that can become part of our minds. My humble non-touchscreen cell phone has freed my actual brain from memorizing phone numbers. Perhaps a little sadly, I’ve often referred to my own Facebook profile when asked about my favorite bands or movies. Even the paper notebook where I scribbled my math notes can be thought of as an extension of my mind. (Try that argument during an exam!)

When I shut down my personal blog during freshman year of college – goodbye to high school rambling – I made the leap to a less ambitious enterprise, a tumblr. In another way though, this was more ambitious because in the description I settled upon, my proclaimed goal was “Translating electrical impulses and molecular movements of the brain into words, images, and hypertext. Brain splatter, in byte-sized chunks!” I wanted to record the transient thoughts in my head – how successful I have been is debatable.

But it’s the effects of an extended digital mind that fascinates me. Through my delicious account, Google Reader, and tumblr, I’ve essentially outsourced the archives of my mind to an easily searchable, electronic database. This may sound a little cyborgian, but it’s also totally exploded the number of things I can “think” about. The infallible ability to search and find – no digital tip of the tongue– makes these archives seemingly more powerful than my brain. As technology becomes increasingly good at predicting what I like and making recommendations, it is more than just an archive.

At the same time, I think there is still value to memorization, if not necessarily the brute force kind. Just as the power of search eliminates the serendipity of a library or bookstore, a search engine can’t make the initially random but ultimately meaningful connections that our brains do. It can’t synthesize multiple streams of information or make metaphors between unrelated concepts. (In the hours pondering physics problem, I’ve come up with way too many metaphors of physical laws describing social interactions.) Technology can augment our minds, but as it stands now, certainly not replace it.

Hat tip to Mind Hacks and The Frontal Cortex

Further reading:
How Google is Making Us Smarter – Discover Magazine

-Sarah Zhang