In what sense can we understand the mind as existing beyond the brain?

Throughout history, since the days of the Ancient Greeks, there has been a fascination with the question of what the mind is. In the modern era, many of the proposed solutions to this question have been concerned with trying to overcome the problem of Cartesian dualism: the idea that mind and body are constituted of different substances. Indeed from the mid twentieth century there seemed to be a general consensus among identity theorists that mind was not in fact a separate substance from body, it could instead be understood purely by understanding the workings of the brain.

However, towards the end of the twentieth century and at the beginning of the twenty first century there has been an important break in this reasoning. This break started with the theory of functionalism which aimed to look at the function of brain activity in order to form a computational understanding of how the mind results from neural processes. Functionalism can be understood as ‘the theory that mental states are defined in terms of their relations to causal inputs, behavioural outputs, and other mental states’ (Cohen in Oksenberg and Nussbaum, 1995, 62).

Building on the initial functionalist model, much contemporary research into the philosophy of mind, led by Andy Clark and David Chalmers in their paper ‘The Extended Mind’, has been seeking to argue that the functional materialist-computationalist framework seriously misrepresents the nature of mind. Instead of looking at the brain as a complex computational machine that creates a series of input/output computations (of which mind is a result), we must instead look at the ‘external scaffolding’ that exists beyond the limits of our ‘biological skin bag’ which, when understood together with the brain, produces what we call the mind.

Extended Minds

Clark and Chalmers’s paper ‘The Extended Mind’ has become somewhat of a corner stone of this particular view, however the theory has been elaborated on in much of Clark’s other work and has been explored under different names by philosophers such as Susan Hurley and Mark Rowlands who brand it vehicle externalism.

The idea of extended mind seems to have its roots in the earlier twentieth century phenomenology of Martin Heidegger and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Indeed, at the beginning of his book Being There, Clark states that ‘Being There didn’t come from nowhere. The image of mind as inextricably interwoven with body, world, and action, already visible in Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time (1927), found clear expression in Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s Structure of Behaviour (1942)’ (Clark, 2001, xvii). In fact, the title of the book is seemingly a direct reference to Heidegger’s Dasein (if we are to take the direct translation Da-Sein as meaning There-Being, or Being There).

The importance of Heidegger for Clark is that Dasein, as a mode of being-in-the-world, emphasises the point that our minds should not be looked at as detached, passive observers, but as active participants. In other words we should not try and understand the world ideally as detached from the ways in which we interact with it (a problem Heidegger believes has been present throughout the history of philosophy, particularly since then enlightenment). The ways in which we are practically involved with the world (e.g. the use of a hammer as an external tool to hammer in nails that Heidegger outlines in Being and Time) are functional couplings, not just ‘detached representations’ (Clark, 2001, 171) i.e. representations that exist as objects of thought separate from our experience of them.

However it should be noted that Clark does not intend Being There to be an analysis of Heidegger, it is simply the focus on an anti-Cartesian, embodied nature of mind present in Heidegger (and Merleau-Ponty), that is of importance to Clark. The focus of the extended mind theory in general is therefore that the mind is not only bound by the biological brain but takes part in a two way interaction or coupling with external entities to form a cognitive system in its own right. This system is therefore one that exists beyond the limits of the biological brain; the mind is not a pure function of brain activity but is co-dependent on interactive feedback loops between brain, body, and world.

To understand the implications of this hypothesis on our understanding of mind we must first identify some of its basic principles. One of the foundational claims of the extended mind theory is that the world which exists beyond our brains can be utilised as an external store of information and this external information can in turn be relevant to mental processes such as ‘perceiving, remembering, reasoning, and (perhaps) experiencing’ (Rowlands, 2009, 629). Furthermore, in direct opposition to Cartesian dualism, some mental processes do not exist as purely internal operations but as a hybrid crossover of both internal and external operations. Whereas these external operations are actions of manipulation and transformation of external structures that provide information relevant to the accomplishing of a task, some of the internal processes are ‘concerned with supplying subjects with the ability to appropriately use relevant structures in their environment’ (Rowlands, 2009, 629).

What we get, then, from these claims is the outline of what Clark and Chalmers define as ‘a very different sort of externalism: an active externalism, based on the active role of the environment in driving cognitive processes’ (Clark and Chalmers, 1998, 11). In other words, we get the outline of a theory of mind that does not exist purely in the brain, as identity theorists believe, but exists as an extension from the brain into the outside world.

A good initial example of this is to look how to multiply two large three digit numbers together. One account may look at someone who has learnt to do this efficiently; this would initially emphasize how we first derive some symbolic encoding of the visual input corresponding to the two numbers. It would then invoke a computational account according to which the inner symbols are manipulated in some way so as to achieve the correct mathematical outcome. However, more realistically, many people cannot multiply large numbers together symbolically in their heads, they must use some outside tools in order to make the process easier. Instead of purely inner computational operations that are decoupled from their environment, this process may involve using a pen and paper to create ‘a pattern of real-world-involving perception-action cycles – ones in which single-digit numbers are compared and intermediate computational results are stored in an external medium using (for example) pen and paper’ (Smart in Halpin and Monin, 2014, 118). In other words what this process achieves is that it takes a cognitive process i.e. the ability to multiply two large numbers together, which is normally considered to be an inner cognitive capability, and shows how the important points of this process are often delegated to ‘some kind of external structure or “scaffolding”’ (Clark, 2001, 32).

However Clark and Chalmers take this one step further than the case of simple cognitive extension, they posit that the mind itself, rather than just certain cognitive processes, is extended. They argue that from their previous exmaples it might be possible to interpret their thought as being concerned merely with cognitive processes but not with true mental states such as ‘experiences, beliefs, desires, emotions, and so on’ (Clark and Chalmers, 1998, 10). They want to combat this criticism by arguing that: ‘While some mental states, such as experiences, may be determined internally, there are other cases in which external factors make a significant contribution. In particular, we will argue that beliefs can be constituted partly by features of the environment, when those features play the right sort of role in driving cognitive processes. If so, the mind extends into the world’ (Clark and Chalmers, 1998, 11).

The example they use is of Otto who is a sufferer of Alzheimer’s disease. Otto uses a notebook to write down any new information he learns in order for him to remember it at a later date. The notebook, in this sense, takes over the role usually allocated to biological memory (i.e. memory that exists internally in the brain) in most healthy humans. Otto hears of an exhibition on at a museum and decides to go and see it, he reads in his notebook that the museum is on 53rd Street, so he walks to 53rd Street and goes to the exhibition.

What is important for Clark and Chalmers in the example is that Otto walked to 53rd Street because he wanted to go to the museum, and he believed the museum was on 53rd Street. A healthy person would have a belief that consulting their biological memory would tell them that the museum was on 53rd Street, even if this was not previously an occurrent belief (i.e. that person did not have to be constantly thinking about where the museum was). Otto, on the other hand, held the belief that consulting his notebook would tell him the museum was on 53rd Street even before he consulted it. Rowlands summarises that to many interpreters of this situation, what this means is ‘“The Museum of Modern Art is on 53rd Street” located in the Alzheimer’s patient Otto’s notebook, is identical with Otto’s belief that the Museum of Modern Art is on 53rd Street.

However, this interpretation is probably too simplistic. More accurately, the idea is that when the sentence in the notebook is being deployed by Otto in the right sort of way, then and only then can it count as among Otto’s beliefs’ (Rowlands, 2009, 632). What Clark and Chalmers are essentially seeking to prove with this example is the idea they present earlier in the essay. They want to show that it makes essentially no difference to the function of the process whether or not the process was carried out by purely internal biological mechanisms or if it was part of a coupling with external mechanisms: ‘If, as we confront some task, a part of the world functions as a process which, were it done in the head, we would have no hesitation in regarding as part of the cognitive process, then that part of the world is (so we claim) part of the cognitive process’ (Clark and Chalmers, 1998, 4).

If we are to understand what they mean by this we must first look at how to interpret the sentence in Otto’s notepad that guides him to where the museum is. Rowlands argues that we must not look at the sentence in Otto’s notebook as itself one of Otto’s beliefs i.e. the sentence itself is not a cognitive state with an external structure. Instead the process of manipulation of an outer object is what constitutes the cognitive state of remembering or believing. I will summarise this interpretation here in 5 key points:

  1. The process of manipulating the sentence on the page of the notebook is part of an overall cognitive process.
  2. This process would constitute remembering or believing.
  3. The manipulation is the process of opening the book to the page the sentence is on and orienting the page to make it detectable to Otto.
  4. This process of manipulation transforms the information of the sentence from present to available; it becomes available to Otto to use for his successive processing operations.
  5. The role of manipulation as a transformation of the sentence from the present to the available forms a properly cognitive part of the process of remembering or believing.

Indeed Rowlands seeks to defend this interpretation against the idea that the sentence represents an external cognitive state in itself: ‘I want no part of the claim that external structures can be identical with cognitive states. I claim only that doing things with external structures can, when the right conditions are met, qualify as cognitive processes’ (Rowlands, 2009, 632). I would suggest that Rowlands’s claim on the nature of extended mind is the most sound interpretation as it displays the process of manipulation of outer objects as the key factor in determining what a memory or a belief consists of rather than asserting that the words in Otto’s notebook can exist, at least ‘when situated in a context composed of the right sorts of surrounding psychological states and processes (Otto’s perception of the sentence, his desire to see the exhibition)’ (Rowlands, 2009, 631), as a cognitive state (e.g. Otto’s belief), as this would imply that a sentence in itself can be identified with a belief, which I would argue must be false.

Therefore, we can see that Clark’s statement that ‘The information in the notebook functions just like the information constituting an ordinary non-occurrent belief; it just happens that this information lies beyond the skin’ (Clark and Chalmers, 1998, 12) seems to imply that if the function of the mental state (in this particular case the manipulation process of reading the notebook), that provides the belief is the same then it should not matter whether that function is inner or outer; biological or external. It seems then the extended mind hypothesis may be, in a certain sense, compatible with the idea of functionalism (in some of its more wide reaching forms) in that it is the function of process that takes centre stage, the physical realisation of that particular mental state does not change its functional role in the mind.


Clark, Andy and Chalmers, David (1998), ‘The Extended Mind’. ANALYSIS 58, 1, pp. 7-19.

Clark, Andy (2001), Being There: Putting Brain, Body, and World Together Again. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Halpin, Harry and Monnin, Alexandre (2014), Philosophical Engineering: Toward a Philosophy of the Web. Oxford: Wiley Blackwell.

Oksenberg, Amélie R. & Nussbaum, Martha C. (1995) Essays on Aristotle’s De Anima. Oxford: OUP.

Rowlands, Mark (2009), ‘The Extended Mind’. Zygon, 44, 3. pp. 628-641.


4 thoughts on “In What Sense Can We Understand the Mind As Existing Beyond the Brain?

  1. Pingback: In What Sense Can We Understand the Mind As Existing Beyond the Brain? | Reddit Spy

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  3. The entire internet is our extended memory and we use google as a tool to find out forgotten data. The other topic is, which way we handle these data stored on the net or retrieved by searching machine.


    • This is an idea that I’ve been interested in for a while now. I think to a certain extent all of our technology, even basic technology such as writing implements, can be seen as an extension of our memory. If you’re interested in this check the ‘Man Without Essence’ posts on the site. I go into it in a bit more detail there.


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