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PSY 355 Psychology & Media in the Digital Age

This page was last modified on March 13, 2021

The 'Extended Mind" Hypothesis (Clark & Chalmers, 1998)
6084 citations in Google Scholar in 2018 (it was 2783 in 2015, 3962 in 2018)
~ 741,000 citations in Google in 2018 (it was 62,000 in 2015 420,000 in 2018)

Where is your mind?

Where does your mind end and your body begin?

Or, where does your body end and your mind begin?

Mind-Brain Image

Is your mind just your brain??? Is your mind "inside" your skull the way the brain is inside the skull?

Let's look at a few thought experiments...

Scenario 1: Merleau-Ponty (1945/1962): The Blind Man with a Cane

Merleau-Ponty Blind Man Cane
  • Merleau-Ponty (1945). This French psychologist-philosopher pointed to the experience of a blind person who navigates the world with a cane or stick. He argues, "The blind man’s stick has ceased to be an object for him, and is no longer perceived for itself; its point has become an area of sensitivity, extending the scope and active radius of touch, and providing a parallel to sight" (p. 143).

                  TVSSScenario 2: Bach-y-Rita's Work on Sensory Substitution and Neuroplasticity
  • Paul Bach-y-Rita (1934-2006; University of Wisconsin-Madison) pioneered the study of whether a missing sense could be replaced by technology using a different sense (Bach-y-Rita & Kercel, 2003).
  • An early example of this technology is called Television Sensory Substitution (TVSS) for use with people who are totally blind (sold commercially as BrainPort V100). It involves a small video camera mounted on the head (e.g., in a pair of glasses) and linked to a central processing unit that, in turn, sends information to a tongue-display unit (TDU). The TDU contains an array of 400-small points that, like the dots in Braille, create a sensation on the tongue. The TDU extracts information from the visual signal and transforms that information into energy (either as vibrations or a direct electrical stimulation of the skin of the tongue).
  • BrainPort V100 is described as "an oral electronic vision aid.  It works like a 400 point refreshable Braille display from which you learn to interpret the bubble-like patterns on your tongue as representative of objects in their surroundings."
  • "After training with TVSS, subjects report experiencing images in space, instead of on the skin. They learn to make perceptual judgments using visual means of interpretation, such as perspective, parallax, looming and zooming, and depth estimates" (Bach-y-Rita & Kercel, 2003, p. 543). Furthermore, "It is possible to recognize a face or to accomplish hand-eye coordinated tasks with only a few hundred points of stimulation." (ibid.)

Scenario 3: The Cyborgnest North Sense Unit (last accessed 20180225)


  • Consider what happens when one attaches to the body a device that provides a fundamentally new type of sensation for humans.
  • "The North Sense is an exo-sense intelligently designed for evolution, which means it sits outside the body but is permanently attached. It allows a person to sense the electromagnetic field of the planet. The North Sense is typically attached to the upper chest and gently vibrates when facing magnetic north."
  • First-person reports from early adopters of North Sense provide evidence that the technology quickly becomes deeply integrated into the wearer’s cognitive life. Most strikingly, orientation and position start to play a bigger-than-usual role in the structuring of memory. [According to Scott Cohen, a co-founder of the company] “It is hard to put into words only a few hours after attaching the North Sense, but the feeling I am left with is profound. The impact of immediately sensing my position created a permanent memory. I vaguely recall the colours and sounds in the room, but I remember my position vividly.” (quoted in Wheeler, 2018, p. 1)

Scenario #4: Geometrical Shape Rotation
(taken from Clark & Chalmers, 1998)
Geometric Shape Rotation
Case 1: Watching a computer screen with geometrical shapes and figuring out how those shapes can fit together

Case 2: Watching a computer screen with the ability to change the orientation of the shapes and figuring out how those shapes fit together

Case 3: In the future, watching a computer screen with a neural implant that can change how cognition pictures the orientation of the shapes and figuring out how those shapes fit together.

Are these all examples of cognition? In Case 3 the implant helps the mind do exactly what it does in Case 1 (except faster).

But, how is Case 2 in which the manipulation on the screen changes the orientation of the shapes any different than Case 3 or Case 1?

Where is the boundary between the skin and the skull?

Active Externalism
Consider in Scrabble how players use the tile holder to try alternative orderings of letters
Scrabble Tiles
Or, how sailors use a nautical slide rule to calculate speed, distance, or time traveled?

Or, how we use pen and pencil to carry out multiplication or long division (without a calculator!) 
Nautical Slide Rule       Multiplication &
                          Long Division by hand

What does this tell us?
  • The human organism is linked with an external entity in a two-way interaction = coupled system
  • This link takes place in real time and plays a crucial role in achieving our goals, i.e., it is active link
  • In the long run, the use of such a coupled system requires reliability & accessibility, that is, available when needed
  • This requirement suggests the central role of portability in the external entity
  • Researching human behaviors in this system requires attention to more than "inner cognition"
The most crucial example of the mind's extension into the world comes in language
  • Groups gathering to brainstorm ideas about how to reach a goal = using language
  • Individuals who put down in writing their ideas and gradually work on them to develop them = using language

What about mind? Can this notion of active externalism be further advanced?
MMA     Notebook
Case A
Mary Jones hears from a friend that there is a wonderful exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She decides to see the exhibit and takes the bus up to 82nd Street near 5th Avenue in NYC. She has consulted her memory which knows that the address of the museum. This allows her to get to the place she wants to go. 
Case B
Fred Smith who is experiencing the early stages of Alzheimer's Disease carries with him a notepad. Whenever he hears something that interests him, he writes it down in the notepad. His friend tells him about the exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and he writes that down. Later that day, he looks at his notepad, decides to visit the exhibit, and sees the address of the museum on 82nd St. and 5th Avenue. Using that information he goes to the exhibit.

What is the difference between Case A and Case B?
In point of fact, the notepad for Fred plays the same role as memory does for Mary. And, indeed, if we were to spend a day with Fred, we would see him constantly consulting his notepad in the same sorts of ways that Mary consults her memory. The information in Fred's notebook is entered as the information comes to him and, thus, would likely be accurate. Furthermore, Fred's notebook is always there (or, at least, almost always there). Hence, like memory, Fred's notebook is reliable, trustworthy, and accessible.

    What about socially extended cognition?
  • Couples or other socially-connected individuals can very well serve in similar ways to the examples cited earlier
    • Each entity in a socially-connected group can hold part of the memory needed by the whole group
    • Individuals who work in very close collaboration find that the borders between what one does/knows and the other one does/knows blurs. For example,
      • Doctors performing surgery including the surgeon, anesthesiologist, primary nurse assistant, etc.
      • Police officers or Marines approaching a dangerous location with the possibility of hostile fire
      • Parents as they put their children to bed in the evening
      • Players on a sports team like basketball
  • The coupling between agents in a social relationship depends upon the use of language
    • "Language...is not a mirror of our inner states but a complement to them. It serves as a tool whose role is to extend cognition in ways that on-board devices cannot." (p. 18)
  • Cognition can, therefore, be extended to reside within the group itself.

   The Self (and Mind) as Extended

  • From the vantage point of these arguments, the self, too, can be considered to extend significantly beyond the limits of the physical boundary of my skin.
  • As I increasingly rely upon active external couplings, my identity more and more resides not just IN me (my skull & skin) but BETWEEN me and those external entities with which I am closely connected.
  • Reports of users of sensory substitutions (e.g., BrainPort V100 or North Sense) consistently note that the external device or technology "disappears" or becomes transparent. The user doesn't experience the device itself as something separate from themselves, but somehow integrated into a unified experience of cognition and action.

William JamesNotes from Fr. Hevern
Historically, the pioneer American psychologist and philosopher, William James argued that the self has multiple facets including
    • Material Self includes our bodies, our clothes and possessions, & our family members
    • Social Self is that "recognition that [we get] from [our] mates....Properly speaking, a man has as many social selves as there are individuals who recognize him." (James, 1890)
    • Spiritual Self is our "inner or subjective being, psychic faculties or dispositions, taken concretely"
    • Pure "Ego"  which is the principle of personal unity.

Ulric NeisserThe late Cornell University Prof. Ulric Neisser (d. 2012), one of the founders of cognitive psychology, also argued that the self understands itself in five ways (Neisser, 1988). He labeled these forms of self-knowledge as

  • Ecological Self = "the self as perceived with respect to the physical environment." Neisser points out that "the ecological self does not always coincide with the biological body. In particular, anything that moves with the body tends to be perceived as part of the self – especially if its movements are self-produced. This principle applies most obviously to the clothes we wear...[However] any controllable object that moves together with the point of observation can become part of the ecological self. This principle applies even to automobiles..." (p. 39).
  • Interpersonal Self = the self who uses "species-specific signals of emotional rapport and communication"
  • Extended Self = "our personal memories and anticipations"
  • Private Self = "the unique and particular" experiences which cannot be shared with others
  • Conceptual Self ("self-concept") = the networks of assumptions and theories that are embedded in the person I understand myself to be, e.g., social roles (husband, professor, American), internal entities (the soul, conscious mind, brain), and socially established dimensions of difference (intelligence, wealth, attractiveness). This is what people believe about themselves (even it if is not true).

Questions to consider

  • What forms of active externalisms do each of us use every day?
  • Where are our memories stored?
  • What tools do we use in order to get our jobs and lives accomplished?
  • What media forms serve as parts of our extended selves?

Cognitive Psychology of Human Multitasking {W}

(Wang et al., 2015)

  • People frequently "multitask" across different forms of media at the same time.
  • Laboratory experimental research tends to find deteriorating performance in multitask conditions, that is, lowered levels of cognitive performance or success and, even, exposure to life-threatening conditions
  • Cognitive psychological research points to
    • "Central bottleneck" problems where many tasks must be performed in a particular sequence (that is, one at a time) and, therefore, there are structural limits to what can be done at the same time.
    • "Limited capacity" theories argue that there are limited cognitive resources by which to encode, store, retrieve, and process information. Hence, multiple demands upon those limited resources will result in decreased performance.
    • "The Law of Less Work": People tend to avoid demanding or difficult cognitive tasks which are often experienced as unpleasant or disagreeable.

Focus of Analysis: What is involved when a human being tries to perform two tasks “in which one or both tasks utilize media technology” (p. 106)


Task Relations
: How are these two tasks related to each other?
Task Inputs: How is task information presented to the user? Task Outputs: Is any behavioral response required by the task(s)? User Differences: Do differences in users affect the processing of & response to the task(s)?

  • Task Hierarchy
  • Task Switch
  • Task Relevance
  • Shared Modality
  • Task Contiguity

  • Information Modality
  • Information Flow
  • Emotional Content

  • Behavioral Responses
  • Time Pressure

Personality styles, expertise & knowledge, etc.


Bach-y-Rita, P., & Kercel, S.W. (2003). Sensory substitution and the human-machine interface. Trends in Cognitive Science, 7, 541-546.

Clark, A., &  Chalmers, D. (1998). The extended mind. Analysis, 58(1), 7-19.

Merleau-Ponty, M. (1962). Phenomenology of perception (C. Smith, Trans.) London, UK: Routledge and Kegan Paul. (Original work published 1945)

Neisser, U. (1988). Five kinds of self-knowledge. Philosophical Psychology, 1(1), 35-59.

Wang, Z., Irwin, M., Cooper, C., & Srivastava, J. (2015). Multidimensions of media multitasking and adaptive media selection. Human Communications Research, 41, 102-127. DOI: 10.1111/hcre.12042

Wheeler, M. (2018). The reappearing tool: Transparency, smart technology, and the extended mind. AI & Society. doi: 10.1007/s00146-018-0824-x

This page was first posted on 2/18/14