What Are the Boundaries of the Mind?
Our mind extends to the tools we use, and to the people we work with.
Posted February 6, 2016
As a human being, you have a conscious experience of the external world around you as well as an internal world of thoughts, images, and feelings. You also have a unified sense of self, that is, you view yourself as a single individual who thinks and acts consistently from one moment to the next. Conscious experience and sense of self are considered to be products of the mind.
But where exactly is your mind? If you accept the evidence from neuroscience, then it seems pretty clear that our experience of mind is a product of brain activity. In brief, the mind is what the brain does.
If we look at the brain, though, we find no command center where the “self” resides. In other words, there’s no little guy up there pushing buttons and pulling levers. This is what philosophers call a “homunculus.” And if there were one, we’d have to ask, “What’s inside its head?”
Instead, the brain is a collection of billions of neurons organized into a highly-complex communication system. Somehow, conscious experience and sense of self arise from the electrical and chemical activity of this system.
Perhaps, then, the mind is the brain, or at least the brain in action. But what if I removed your brain from your skull and put it in a jar of life-preserving fluid? Let’s say I also hook up your brain to a computer that would provide inputs just as it would normally receive from the sense organs. Is that you inside the jar? Would you really have conscious experiences and a unified sense of self? The first Matrix movie played with the old philosophical conundrum of a “brain in a vat.”
You probably agree that your brain needs to be inside your body—and fully connected to it—to generate conscious experience and sense of self. In other words, your mind isn’t just your brain. It encompasses your whole body. This way of viewing the mind is known as “embodied cognition.”
Are we then nothing more than “skin-encapsulated egos,” as beat-generation philosopher Alan Watts put it? He certainly didn’t think so. But he based his hunch on Eastern mysticism, not neuroscience.
Today, a growing number of psychologists and philosophers of the mind argue that the mind extends beyond the body to include the tools we use. This is known as “extended cognition.” For example, when you drive, your mind extends to the car—you and the vehicle act as a single unit. As I’m typing on my laptop right now, my mind reaches out to include the processing of the computer.
Extended cognition theory is generally discussed in the context of human-machine interactions. But it’s possible to use this theory to explain human-human interactions as well. For example, when team members cooperate seamlessly to accomplish a task, can we think of the group as having a single “team mind”? Cognitive scientist Nancy Cooke argues exactly that.
Traditionally, team work has been explained in terms of the “shared mental-models” perspective. According to this theory, team members work well together when they have a similar knowledge base. This shared knowledge includes a set of skills for performing the task, information about the current state of the environment, and an understanding of the characteristics and typical behaviors of each team member. According to this view, each team member is a “skin-encapsulated ego.” Each member’s mind is separate from the others, but the similarities of each of these separate minds enable them to work efficiently together.
Cooke sees three problems with this model of team work. First, it views the shared knowledge base of the team as static. That is, it doesn’t account for how the team’s knowledge base changes over time, especially as team performance improves through experience.
Second, the theory can’t account for dynamic changes in team behavior in response to a changing environment and when faced with situations the team has never encountered before. When challenged with novelty, some teams excel and others fall apart.
Third, the theory doesn’t take into consideration cases where individual team members have different knowledge bases or skill sets yet the team still works effectively as a whole. Take for example the flight crew of an airliner. You wouldn’t want the flight attendant to navigate the plane. But then again, you wouldn’t want the pilot serving you drinks and dinner either.
According to Cooke, team effectiveness resides not in shared knowledge among team members but rather in how well they communicate with each other. In particular, Cooke focuses on what she calls the “push and pull” of information, that is, how information is passed from one team member to another.
With experience, team members learn to request and to provide information in a timely fashion. This information is also communicated in a concise and unambiguous manner. Thus, the jargon and set expressions of a particular profession, such as that of an airline crew, lubricates the push and pull of information. There’s no need for team members to ponder underlying meanings, as is often the case in daily conversation. When the pilot says, “Prepare for landing,” the cabin crew knows exactly what to do.
Cooke argues that this push and pull of information creates a “team mind” in which the group as a whole is thinking and behaving. If you consider the idea of a “team mind” to be outlandish, let’s take another look inside your head. Billions of mindless neurons pushing and pulling information generate mind in its traditional, “skin-encapsulated” sense. We’ve also seen how mind can extend to the tools we use—people really do say they can’t think without their computer. So why can’t the mind extend to include other people as well?
Members of a highly effective team often report that they experience a sense of “flow” while engaged in the group activity. Flow refers to the phenomenon of peak performance, an almost ecstatic experience in which the sense of time and self are lost. Perhaps, then, there is a kind of “mind-meld” that occurs when a team works effectively together, giving rise to a conscious experience and sense of self that transcends the individual.
Cooke, N. J. (2015). Team cognition as interaction. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 24, 415-419.
Magick River. (2015, April 3). Alan Watts and the skin-encapsulated ego (reprise). Available at http://www.magickriver.org/2009/06/alan-watts-and-skin-encapsulated-ego.html.
David Ludden is the author of The Psychology of Language: An Integrated Approach (SAGE Publications).