External memory

I’ve come to learn that the extended mind is a thing. Wikipedia:

The extended mind is an idea in the field of philosophy of mind [that] holds that the reach of the mind need not end at the boundaries of skin and skull. Tools, instrument and other environmental props can under certain conditions also count as proper parts of our minds.

The seminal paper by Clark and Chalmers (PDF, ungated) on extended mind was brought to my attention on Twitter. The Wikipedia page has additional references.

First of all, to me, duh! I’ve thought that cognition could extend beyond the body for decades. Second of all, I’ve been much more actively aware of extended memory in recent years, owing to the internet, but especially to this blog and Twitter. As I’ve written and said before, I use them as memory aids. If I’ve blogged or tweeted it, I can find it again later. I need not remember the details (as if I could), just enough to retrieve it from the index.

More recently, though, I realized that this is not new. People extended their mind before the internet. They even did and do it without writing tools. We store memories in other people’s minds. Clark and Chalmers couch this in terms of “belief,” but it’s clear “memory” also works.

What about socially extended cognition? Could my mental states be partly constituted by the states of other thinkers? We see no reason why not, in principle. In an unusually interdependent couple, it is entirely possible that one partner’s beliefs will play the same sort of role for the other as the notebook plays for Otto [a hypothetical Alzheimer’s patient who extends his memory with a notebook]. What is central is a high degree of trust, reliance, and accessibility. In other social relationships these criteria may not be so clearly fulfilled, but they might nevertheless be fulfilled in specific domains. For example, the waiter at my favourite restaurant might act as a repository of my beliefs about my favourite meals (this might even be construed as a case of extended desire). In other cases, one’s beliefs might be embodied in one’s secretary, one’s accountant, or one’s collaborator.

I know Aaron’s brain houses certain health policy details I could commit to local memory. I know Adrianna’s got the details on Michigan’s Medicaid expansion. Harold knows drug policy and public health. Bill, philosophy and ethics. Kevin and Nick Bagley, health law, natch. My colleague down the hall remembers which paper to cite when employing various econometric techniques. My wife and kids know the names of hundreds of people around town. Of course all these people and others I can reach know so much more. As needed, I can retrieve this information. How much does it matter that it’s not in my own head all the time?

It’s part of growing up that one recognizes one’s strengths. Everyone’s mind is optimally configured for something. Mine seems to strongly want to index and compress. Sure, I read a lot, listen to a lot of podcasts, and interact with others and, by doing so, pour in a ton of detail. But it mostly doesn’t stick. What sticks more than most is where I heard or read something (an index).* Or, if the information can be more compactly represented by a stylized fact or rule, I might remember that (compression).

I’m sure I’m not alone in this. I only now recognize that I’ve been active in pursuit of intellectual environments that play to these tendencies. For instance, though I excelled in all subjects, I was drawn to physics and math in school. Why? Compression. A theory or equation is far easier for me to remember than historical details, scenes of a play, or French verb conjugation rules (relatively simple though they may be).

As I’ve extended my professional network, thanks to this blog, I’ve noticed that I’m effectively storing memories in many more people. They don’t know I’m doing it. In fact, I’m not really doing anything other than learning what their area of expertise is and acquiring access (by email, usually) to their time. (It’s a two-way street. They’re doing the same to me.) I’m not actually putting the memory in their heads. I’m just learning more about what’s already there, or likely to be, and obtaining something like read-access or database-query privileges. This is not new. This is what networking is all about.

And, in fact, it’s not very memory like. My engagement with other minds is different from my engagement with my own. I didn’t come to myself with information, the way other people come to me with heads filled. I had to do something, experience something, for information to get stored in my head. I don’t have to do anything for information to be in others’ heads. They have to do something. On the other hand, having done stuff in the past, I do come to my present self with a head full of stuff.

Nevertheless, there are a lot of ways in which “external memory” may not be like “internal memory.” Some are explored in a paper by Michaelian (h/t Twitter again). But, to me, it is not that interesting that external, information-bearing resources are not just like internal memory. What’s interesting is that they can most certainly be used to supplement internal memory. Technology has made doing so much easier. And, I am grateful for it.

* My index also stores what is of interest to others I know. That’s why I am so frequently emailing people papers and links. As I see things of relevance, I think of them and share. And, why not? I’m just feeding and caring for my extended mind, after all. (Plus, I like these people.)


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