The best books that redefine the mind as more than a brain

Michael J. Spivey Author Of Who You Are: The Science of Connectedness
By Michael J. Spivey

The Books I Picked & Why

Supersizing the Mind: Embodiment, Action, and Cognitive Extension

By Andy Clark

Book cover of Supersizing the Mind: Embodiment, Action, and Cognitive Extension

Why this book?

There are many relevant books that preceded Andy Clark’s Supersizing the Mind and that followed it. For example, Raymond Gibbs’s Embodiment and Cognitive Science, Louise Barrett’s Beyond the Brain, and Lawrence Shapiro’s Embodied Cognition have made important contributions to the field’s understanding of the role that the body plays in cognition. But Andy Clark’s treatment of this topic stands out because of the range of disciplines that he includes in marshaling of evidence for embodied and extended cognition.

Unlike many of the proponents of embodied and extended cognition, Andy Clark relies heavily on state-of-the-art robotics for his evidence. As a philosopher, Clark’s first instinct is to use thought experiments to help “pump” the reader’s intuitions out of the ground like subterranean insights. A good thought experiment can actually help you realize that you have a different opinion about something than you thought you had. But Clark also clearly has a love for robotics. While intuitions can reveal opinions, and cognitive neuroscience experiments can test one theory against another, robotics shows us when a theory can actually be physically implemented successfully – and when it can’t. For example, when a cognitive neuroscientist says “if the brain works this way, then my experiment will find these results,” another cognitive neuroscientist can often retort with “but this very different theory can produce those results as well!”  By contrast, when a roboticist says “if I build a robot this way, it will walk or talk or identify objects,” and she does and it works, no one can say it didn’t happen. Moreover, when a theory that looks good on paper is converted into a machine and the machine breaks itself, that is clear evidence that the theory needs some revision. Eventually, all theories of perception, action, and cognition will have to visit the ruthless proving grounds of robotics, where those tests will either make them or break them. Thus, it is no wonder that Andy Clark spends much if his effort in Supersizing the Mind exploring robots as palpable examples of cognitive processing taking place not just in the CPU of the robot but also in the body of the robot – and even in the body’s relation to the environment that it’s in. 

Clark quickly dives into the concept of passive dynamics as an efficient method for locomotion and other behaviors. Passive dynamics is an example of the broader concept of “morphological computation,” where the morphology of the agent’s body already does some of the cognitive computations for it, even before signals are sent to a CPU or a brain. With passive dynamics, it is momentum, inertia, and gravity that provide crucial assistance in the action of the limbs – and you get those for free! For example, if the legs are the right length and weight, relative to the rest of the body, surprisingly little energy is required to make them swing forward and back for walking. With the perfect balancing of physical tension forces between muscles and between bones, the human body (and certain robots) can be seen as a tensegrity object that maintains its structural integrity despite a variety of contortions and deformations during complex movements and actions. This balance is maintained in large part due to the simple physical forces exerted by tendons, ligaments, and fascia – over and above the signals that are being sent by electrochemical impulses that are connected to the central nervous system. 

Clark’s Supersizing the Mind is now a classic ride through the philosophy and robotics of embodied and extended cognition and is surely required reading for anyone interested in this field.

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Extended Consciousness and Predictive Processing: A Third Wave View

By Michael D. Kirchhoff, Julian Kiverstein

Book cover of Extended Consciousness and Predictive Processing: A Third Wave View

Why this book?

Where Andy Clark leaves off, claiming that cognition is extended into the environment via the tools that we use, Kirchhoff and Kiverstein take up claiming that consciousness itself may also be extended into the environment under certain circumstances. Consider that moment when you and someone close to you are both trying to remember the name of some actor from a movie. You both feel like the name is on the tip of your tongues but can’t quite come to a realization. You manage to blurt out the first name but nothing else and then your partner blurts out the last name. As per Andy Clark, this is clearly a case of extended cognition between two people. But is it perhaps also a case of a momentary shared consciousness? 

Kirchhoff and Kiverstein first provide a scholarly analytical philosophical treatment of recent iterations of the extended cognition hypothesis primarily to draw the subtle distinction between it and an extended consciousness hypothesis. They then move on to the philosophical arguments and the evidence from sensorimotor contingencies that support extended consciousness. Sensorimotor contingencies describe the continuous recurrent relationship between motor output and sensory input. That is, brain activity is not merely an effect of sensory inputs, it is also a cause of them – because brain activity produces continuous motor output that is responsible for changing those sensory inputs. As such, Kirchhoff and Kiverstein suggest that brain activity cannot be analyzed separately (or “unplugged”) from the object, events and people in the environment that take part in that continuous sensorimotor flow of information. Thus, if one wishes to point to the physical material that constitutes not just cognition but consciousness as well, one must include those objects, events, and people along with the brain activity.

This short monograph takes head-on all the philosophical criticisms of the extended consciousness hypothesis (including those of Andy Clark). It addresses them seriously and carefully refutes them with compelling philosophical argumentation. It will not convince all members of the die-hard opposition, as much of their resistance is motivated by intuitions rooted in neural chauvinism. But this treatise will succeed in convincing a substantial number of serious researchers that, whatever consciousness is, it need not be constituted exclusively by biological neural networks.

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Radical Embodied Cognitive Science

By Anthony Chemero

Book cover of Radical Embodied Cognitive Science

Why this book?

On the last page of The Continuity of Mind, I playfully hinted at a sequel (probably written by someone else) that would continue the paradigm’s push not just away from a “computer metaphor for the mind” but even beyond a brain-based approach to cognition. A couple of years later, Tony Chemero published Radical Embodied Cognitive Science, which (to me) felt like that sequel. 

In Radical Embodied Cognitive Science, Chemero draws on philosophy, then on cognitive psychology, then on dynamical systems theory, then on ecological psychology, and finally back to philosophy to tell the story of a progressive interdisciplinary approach to understanding sensorimotor processing and human experience as belonging to the natural order – rather than being some unique phenomenon that has no overlap with the rest of the natural world. After setting the stage with a treatment of the philosophical background and defining what the theoretical stakes are, Chemero reveals his deep respect for empirical findings (along with philosophical argumentation) in detailing a series of mathematically motivated experiments that showcase the continuous coupling that arises between sensory input and motor output – without the need for an intermediating computational stage.

In Radical Embodied Cognitive Science, ecological psychologists will learn some philosophy and philosophers will learn some ecological psychology. And the rest of us will learn both! But more importantly than that, all readers will benefit enormously from the clear not-overly-jargoned tour that Chemero provides in weaving these various disciplines together to make his case that radical embodied cognitive science is not actually a “radicalized” form of embodied cognition. It is the natural unvarnished version of embodied cognition. The more common “non-radical” form of embodied cognition still clings needlessly to an antiquated form of treating the mind like it is a computer that sends its sensor data to the CPU before “making decisions” and then sending commands to its effectors. When you remove this representation-based computationalism from the embodied cognition story (as the data suggest you should), you get radical embodied cognitive science. Mental activity emerges among the coupling of organism with environment, without the need to postulate all those mental gymnastics that involve symbolic “representations” being interpreted by some “cognizer.”

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Memory Speaks: On Losing and Reclaiming Language and Self

By Julie Sedivy

Book cover of Memory Speaks: On Losing and Reclaiming Language and Self

Why this book?

One of the most important parts of the environment for human organisms is the linguistic information that we share back and forth with each other. The language(s) you share with the people around you cannot help but become a fundamental aspect of who you are. While the majority of the world is multilingual (i.e., able to talk about the same thing in different ways), many in North America struggle with developing fluency in a language other than English because English has become so overwhelmingly dominant. Julie Sedivy is in the curious (but not uncommon) situation of being “a linguistic orphan, a person without a mother tongue.” She learned only Czech for the first few years of her life but then was whisked away to Canada where she quickly learned English and rapidly forgot her native language. In Memory Speaks, Julie Sedivy draws the parallels between an individual losing a particular language (i.e., a particular way of thinking about the world) and a society losing an entire language due to cultural change – what linguists call language death. 

Sedivy is a captivating storyteller. By deftly weaving together personal accounts with research scholarship, she allows the reader to see the trees and the forest at the same time. At one point, Sedivy contrasts endangered languages to endangered animal species. She notes how people find it more natural to lament the loss of the majestic Bengal tiger than to pine over the death of an obscure language. Perhaps this is due in part to people’s misplaced assumption that a language is just a tool used to convey ideas that we all have in our heads. If one tool breaks, just use another; what’s the difference? The difference, which Sedivy makes clear, is that different languages make different selves. Those ideas-that-we-all-have-in-our-heads are not the same ideas when they are formed with one language versus another. When a language dies (either in a society or in an individual mind), a way of thinking dies, a way of being dies.

When you lose your connection to your native language and culture, Sedivy writes, “Your sense of who you are has blank spaces in it.” Likewise, when humanity loses one of its languages, perhaps its global sense of who it is has blank spaces in it. As readers, we get privy to exquisite parallels in her description of her own first-hand personal experience of cultural loss intermingled with descriptions of the mass stripping of cultural identity from entire peoples (as in the Nazi’s treatment of Jews, Blacks, and Romani and in North American colonists’ treatment of indigenous tribes). Sometimes languages die through the accidents of immigration, commerce, and cultural evolution. But sometimes they die through unfathomable human cruelty. There are clearly some deep similarities, and important contrasts, worth noticing between the loss of a language in an individual human mind and the loss of a language in a society. In Memory Speaks, Julie Sedivy brings them all into sharp relief with powerful, moving writing. 

The solution, of course, as her later chapters demonstrate, is to encourage multilingualism – in individuals and in societies. Giving a child multiple ways to talk about the world avails them multiple ways to perceive the world. With a more open mind, the next generation will surely be better at solving the world’s many emerging problems.

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Axiomatic: Short Stories of Science Fiction

By Greg Egan

Book cover of Axiomatic: Short Stories of Science Fiction

Why this book?

Philip K. Dick was not so lucky as to be able to read and absorb the entire library of Philip K. Dick’s writings before beginning his own writing. But Greg Egan was. As a result, Greg Egan’s short stories in his collection, Axiomatic, show the directions that Philip K. Dick may have gone in if he had been able to live two lifetimes. (It is noteworthy that, on this website, John L. Casti recommends Greg Egan’s novel Permutation City, also one of my favorites.)

In his short story, The Hundred Light-Year Diary, Egan imagines a world where you can send short messages back to your younger self but physical determinism prevents your younger self from being able to make any changes to his/her life despite that knowledge. When telling that younger self what they unerringly have in store for them, the temptation to candy-coat the truth can be overwhelming. We all can remember the hopes and dreams that our younger selves had for our present selves. Have you lived up to that? If you had a conversation with that younger self, would you have difficulty being brutally honest with them about the bad parts?

Many of Egan’s short stories in Axiomatic involve placing a mind into a different body and then realizing how much that different body alters one’s mental experience. I remember reading one of those body-trading stories 20 years ago while lying in bed. When I finished the story, I stood up and felt profoundly estranged from my own body. Without having to ingest any psychoactive substances, I found myself looking down at my feet and marveling at how far away they were. I was puzzled at how my limbs and torso could move and locomote me around as though they were a foreign container that carried my consciousness around like fragile cargo. If you too want an otherworldly sensory experience like that, don’t take drugs, just read Greg Egan’s Axiomatic.

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