Monday, December 06, 2010

Book comment: Andy Clark “Supersizing the Mind—Embodiment, Action, and Cognitive Extension”

The book “Supersizing the Mind—Embodiment, Action, and Cognitive Extension” by Andy Clark is a great account for the idea that our thinking and our minds are not only a matter of the brain. Clark is developing the idea of the “extended” mind in contrast to what he calls the “brainbound” idea of thinking. Even though this book is primarily a book on modern cognitive science and its different models and explanations of thinking, it also has a broader interest and also practical consequences.

I am of course reading this book from the perspective of my own interests in interaction design and design theory. Reading the book from such a perspective makes it very easy to be supportive of the major ideas discussed since they make intuitive sense. This is interesting since Clark notes that in cognitive science this proposed theory instead is commonly seen as too radical since it goes against an intuitive understanding of thinking.

The basic argument in the book is that humans do not merely think with their brains, but with their bodies and with their immediate environment, artifacts and systems. And that thinking is not only the abstract cognitive activity but influenced and informed through the “use” of bodily and sensory actions. This is for Clark an important theoretical position and he states it as “I believe that human minds and bodies are essentially open to episodes of deep and transformative restructuring in which new equipment (both physical and “mental”) can become quite literally incorporated into the thinking and acting systems that we identify as our minds and bodies” (p 31). Clark goes through a number of examples on quite detailed level that all lead to and taken together create his larger argument. He discusses robot research, the body, material symbols, the limits of his theory, what the brain becomes with if this view is accepted, and more.

One consequence of the view of thinking that Clark argues for is that thinking and acting becomes circular and a feedback system. Humans develop tools that in turn help them to think in certain ways, which again leads to new tools. He writes “The linguistic scaffoldings that surround us, and that we ourselves create, are both cognition enhancing in their own right and help provide the tools we use to discover and build the myriad of other props and scaffoldings whose cumulative effect is to press minds like ours from the biological flux.” (p 60). Of course, this quote also has some other quite powerful consequences, related to evolution and language. Clark writes “For examples, both educational practices and human-built structures (artifacts) are passed on from generation to generation in ways that dramatically alter the fitness landscape for individual lifetime learning” (p 62).

So, we humans develop artifacts, tools, and systems as a way to “do” or make things change in the “real” physical world but at the same time these tools alter and influence, or maybe more appropriately support our ability to think. Clark again “We thus comes to what is arguably the most radical contemporary take on the potential cognitive role of nonbiological props, aids, and structures: the idea that, under certain conditions, such props and structures might count as proper parts of extended cognitive processes.” (p 68).

Clark goes on discussing some general and philosophical issues and challenges that a theory like this faces, as well as, very detailed and empirically grounded concerns raised from within cognitive science studies.  One issue that Clark discusses is that with this view, thinking becomes a spread out activity located partly in the brain and partly somewhere else. From a cognitive science perspective this creates a lot of problems on how to study thinking, it becomes a bit “messy”. Which in terms can be seen as it creates a “high explanatory cost” for anyone who wants to study thinking since it becomes such a complex “system” instead of the neatly coherent and located “brain”. This is however not necessarily an issue for those of us who just want to use this theory as a tool in our own fields.

Reading this book from the perspective of design theory is fascinating and at the same time interestingly not very challenging. The notion of extended thinking is quite accepted in design and is also developed into approaches, methods and techniques used by designers. Designers always collect ideas, use notebooks, sketches, etc. all as a way of thinking, and not as a way of collecting information or knowledge.

We can find this developed more theoretically in the works of for instance Donald Schon who famously wrote about the idea that designers externalize their ideas in sketches and prototypes and that as a consequence the “world speaks back”. He argued that this “conversation” is at the core of any thinking aimed at creating the which does not yet exist, and where there are no logical systems that can prescribe the thinking process, instead it is all about explorative thinking. There are several books on the value of constantly sketching, of saving designs, of having notebooks, of surround yourself with artifacts to create a rich environment that stimulate and becomes part of your thinking, etc. In almost all the cases the argument among design thinkers is that these are “thinking tools” and that it is not possible to think without them.  It is clear that these “techniques” are not seen as informational, instead they are seen as part of the thinking process itself.

In the same way, designers are always thinking about the particular, about the artifact, and know that when you design an artifact or system you design tools that will become part of users “thinking”. The focus on objects, artifacts, and systems has probably made this kind of thinking quite natural and intuitive for designers. Clark mentions that for the mainstream cognitive science community his “expanded” perspective might seem too “messy” or “fleshy” (two concepts used by Clark). This bodily, material, physical and artifact centered view is therefore in a way intuitive for designers and easy to accept and understand.

The great value of Clark’s book is that he is making a strong case for a highly important way to think about thinking, which should be of interest to any designer. His argumentation is also based on scientific research which means that he is much more careful with definitions and claims, than people in design areas who make similar claims.  So, even the overall message in Clark’s book is less provocative for designers there is a lot to learn from this book.


Anonymous said...

Interesting. But I think his ideas of thinking with the body seem more applicable in real life - all the busy people doing all sorts of (crazy)things. As for interaction design, it seems we should always have a "good" reason? Is that so?

The Unknown

Daniel said...

Interesting reading as always.