Extended cognition

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Extended cognition is the view that mental processes and mind extend beyond the body to include aspects of the environment in which an organism is embedded and the organism's interaction with that environment.[1] Cognition goes beyond the manipulation of symbols to include the emergence of order and structure evolving from active engagement with the world.[2] As described by Rowlands, mental processes are:[3]

Embodied involving more than the brain, including a more general involvement of bodily structures and processes.
Embedded functioning only in a related external environment.
Enacted involving not only neural processes, but also things an organism does.
Extended into the organism's environment.

It has been customary to think of the mind as a processing center that creates mental representations of reality and uses them to control the body's behavior. The field of extended cognition focuses upon the processes involved in this creation, and subsumes these processes as part of 'mind'. As a result, mind is no longer confined to the brain or body, but involves interaction with the environment. At a 'low' level, like motor learning, haptic perception,[4] and psycholinguistics the body is obviously involved in cognition, but it is equally obvious that there is a 'high' level where cultural factors play a role.[5][6] This broadened view of cognition and cognitive science is sometimes referred to as enaction to emphasize the role of interplay between the organism and its environment and the feedback processes involved in developing an awareness of, and a reformation of, the environment.[7] The emphasis on the interactive nature of cognition includes but extends the idea of embodied cognition, which last recognizes the extension of 'mind' beyond the confines of the brain, but does not emphasize the interactive learning process.

Social constructivism

For more information, see: Social constructivism.

Extended cognition involves groups as well as individuals. Social constructivism is the study of an individual's learning that takes place because of their interactions in a group, and the group's experience with its environment. According to Gergen, the social constructionist orientation suggests:[8]

  1. What we take to be knowledge of the world is not a product [simply] of induction, or of the building and testing of hypotheses...How can theoretical categories be induced or derived from observation,...if the process of identifying observational attributes itself relies on one's possessing categories? ... Constructionism asks one to suspend belief that commonly accepted categories or understandings receive their warrant through observation.
  2. The terms in which the world is understood are social artifacts, products of historically situated interchanges among people. From the constructionist position the process of understanding is not automatically driven by the forces of nature, but is the result of an active, cooperative enterprise of persons in relationship....[We are invited] to consider the social origins of taken-for-granted assumptions about the mind – such as the bifurcation between reason and emotion, the existence of motives and memories, and the symbol system believed to underlie language.
  3. The degree to which a given form of understanding prevails or is sustained across time is not fundamentally dependent on the empirical validity of the perspective in question, but on the vicissitudes of social processes (e.g., communication, negotiation, conflict, rhetoric)
  4. Descriptions and explanations of the world themselves constitute forms of social action. As such they are intertwined with the full range of other human activities.

An example is the idea of a paradigm as described by Thomas Kuhn in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.[9][10] For the scientist a paradigm refers to the sense of the way reality is structured and the means by which the scientist uncovers this reality and is able to manipulate it and predict effects and events. The dissatisfaction of scientists with an existing theory leads to a paradigm shift, and this dissatisfaction is a matter of criteria demanded of an acceptable theory.[9] These criteria are not themselves scientifically established, but describe an 'ideal' theory as seen by the scientific community,[11] criteria such as 'elegance', 'completeness', 'seminality', 'simplicity'.[12][13]

Thus, as the idea of extended cognition suggests within the context of social constructivism, the development of a paradigm involves the interaction of scientists with their environment and each other, the theoretical treatment of experimental results, and re-engagement in probing the environment on the basis of that theory, sometimes with very sophisticated apparatus. Examples of complex probing of the environment as part of the cognitive process, what enaction is about, are the Hadron collider or the Hubble telescope. These activities are accompanied by the evolution and application of theories subject to an aesthetic stemming from social interactions between scientists.[12]

Non-reductive naturalism

Physical reductionism is the argument that all events (ultimately) are connected to (possibly yet-to-be-established) primal events by the 'laws of nature'. This view leads to the anticipation that mental events are reducible to neuroscience and brain circuitry.[14] In contrast, non-reductive naturalism claims that "mental phenomena cannot be reduced to any particular material object or local process, as for instance neural processing."[15] One form of this thesis arises in cultural psychology where mind is viewed as a cultural phenomenon.[5]

In contrast with a reduction of mental activity to 'brain circuitry', the manipulation of representations of sensory input by a biological computer, the view of extended cognition is constructivist, that is, it is about "the active construction of knowledge through our interaction with the environment"..."Our brains do not indiscriminately and passively crunch up any structure that can be detected in a never ending stream of sensations...Cognition is a lot about discarding irrelevant information and going out to get relevant information"[15][16] This approach is non-reductionist, that is, it can include reductionism, but is not restricted to it. That view is similar to that of model-dependent realism, namely, that a variety of models develop and adapt to our growing awareness of our environment, leading to a patchwork ensemble of overlapping descriptions, each covering their own particular domain of experience.

Internalism and externalism

For more information, see: Subjective-objective dichotomy.

Proponents of enaction consider its emphasis upon interaction with the external environment to be in contrast with the view of mental processes as simply the internal operation of the brain as a computer manipulating symbols encoding representations of the world, the rules and representations approach to cognition.[3] The issue is not just that cognition involves structures outside the brain proper, but that cognition is a process of interaction, an activity. However, the role of the subject, the individuation, of this activity might be underestimated.[17][18]

The interactivity between the organism and the environment emphasized by extended cognition impinges on the deeper philosophical questions of the subjective-objective dichotomy, that is the partition of experience between subject and object.[17] At one extreme, our interior mental processes are dictated by interaction with the external world, and at the other extreme, they are creations of our conscious and subconscious brain activity. "Externalism with regard to mental content says that in order to have certain types of intentional mental states (e.g. beliefs), it is necessary to be related to the environment in the right way. Internalism (or individualism) denies this, and it affirms that having those intentional mental states depends solely on our intrinsic properties."[18]


The term scaffolding in connection with mind refers to the dependence of more complicated functionality upon simpler functionality that serves as a 'scaffold' to build and develop the more complex activity. In developmental psychology one application of scaffolding is the idea that early life experiences significantly shape the adult’s understanding.[19] More broadly, the term has been introduced to describe a "broad class of physical, cognitive and social augmentations -- augmentations which allow us to achieve some goal which would otherwise be beyond us".[20]

In the context of enaction, scaffolding refers to cognition-enhancing tools that extend mental processes into the environment and modulate or even enable interaction with that environment in the processes of cognition. A simple example is the use of a cane by a blind man, "stick-augmented perception".[21]

From this standpoint, "what individuals inherit from their ancestors is not a mind, but the ability to develop a mind," a "matrix of resources that serve as the actual physical causes of development."[22] The development of mind is seen as a dynamical process involving interaction with the environment. According to Thelan (as quoted by Griffiths and Stotz):[23]

"behavior and cognition, and their changes during ontogeny [development] are not represented anywhere in the system beforehand either as dedicated structures, or symbols in the brain, or as codes in the genes. Rather, thought and behavior are "softly assembled" as dynamical patterns of activity that arise as a function of the intended task at hand and an individual's "intrinsic dynamics" [by which is meant] the preferred states of the system given its current architecture and previous history of activity."


  1. Robert D Rupert (August 2004). "Challenges to the Hypothesis of Extended Cognition". The Journal of Philosophy 101 (8): pp. 389-428.
  2. Tim van Gelder (1999). “Chapter 8: Wooden Iron? Husserlian Phenomenology Meets Cognitive Science”, Jean Petitot, Francisco J Varela, Bernard Pachoud, Jean-Michel Roy, eds: Naturalizing Phenomenology: Issues in Contemporary Phenomenology and Cognitive Science. Stanford University Press, p. 252. ISBN 978-0804736107. 
  3. 3.0 3.1 Mark Rowlands (2010). “Chapter 3: The mind embedded”, The new science of the mind: From extended mind to embodied phenomenology. MIT Press, pp. 51 ff. ISBN 0262014556. 
  4. Pietro Morasso (2005). Consciousness as the emergent property of the interaction between brain, body, & environment: the crucial role of haptic perception. Slides related to a chapter on haptic perception (recognition through touch): Pietro Morasso (2007). “Chapter 14: The crucial role of haptic perception”, Antonio Chella & Riccardo Manzotti, eds: Artificial Consciousness. Academic, pp. 234-255. ISBN 978-1845400705. 
  5. 5.0 5.1 Carl Ratner (2011). Macro Cultural Psychology: A Political Philosophy of Mind. Oxford University Press, p. 96. ISBN 0199706298. “Culture produces the mind; brain circuitry does not. The mind-body problem of how the physical body/brain produces mental, subjective qualia, is the wrong way to frame the origin of consciousness.” 
  6. McGann, Marek; De Jaegher, Hanne; Di Paolo, Ezequiel (June, 2013). "Enaction and psychology". Review of General Psychology 17 (2): pp. 203-209. DOI:10.1037/a0032935. Research Blogging.
  7. John Stewart, Oliver Gapenne, Ezequiel A DiPaolo (2014). “Introduction”, John Stewart, Oliver Gapenne, Ezequiel A DiPaolo, eds: Enaction, Paperback. MIT Press, p. vii. ISBN 978-0-262-52601-2. 
  8. Kenneth J Gergen (March 1985). "The social constructionist movement in modern psychology". American Psychologist 40 (3): pp. 266 ff.
  9. 9.0 9.1 Stefano Guzzini (2000). "A reconstruction of constructionism in international relations". European Journal of International Relations 6 (2): p. 158. “One of the main defenders of epistemological constructivism who is also well known in IR [international relations], Thomas Kuhn.”
  10. Bruno Latour, Steve Woolgar (1986). Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts. Princeton University Press, p. 275. ISBN 978-0691028323. “Kuhn had already provided...the general basis for a conception of the social character of science.” 
  11. Alexander Bird (August 11, 2011). Edward N. Zalta, ed:Thomas Kuhn: §3: The concept of a paradigm. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2013 Edition). “This [a paradigm] is the consensus on exemplary instances of scientific research.”
  12. 12.0 12.1 Thomas Kuhn formally stated the need for the "norms for rational theory choice". One of his discussions is reprinted in Thomas S Kuhn. “Chapter 9: Rationality and Theory Choice”, James Conant, John Haugeland, eds: The Road since Structure: Philosophical Essays, 1970-1993,, 2nd. University of Chicago Press, pp. 208 ff. ISBN 0226457990. 
  13. Mark Colyvan (2001). The Indispensability of Mathematics. Oxford University Press, pp. 78–79. ISBN 0195166612. 
  14. Eric R. Kandel (2007). In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind. WW Norton, p. 9. ISBN 0393329372. “...consciousness is a biological process that will eventually be explained in terms of molecular signaling pathways used by interacting populations of nerve cells...” 
  15. 15.0 15.1 Marieke Rohde (2010). “Introduction”, Enaction, embodiment, evolutionary robotics: Simulation models for a post-cognitivist science of mind. Atlantis Press, p. 2. ISBN 978-9078677239.  Available on line here
  16. SM Potter (2007). “What do we know about natural intelligence (NI) that can inform artificial intelligence (AI)?”, 50 Years of Artificial Intelligence: Essays Dedicated to the 50th Anniversary of Artificial Intelligence. Springer, pp. 176 ff. ISBN 3540772952. 
  17. 17.0 17.1 Basil Smith. Internalism and externalism in the philosophy of mind and language. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  18. 18.0 18.1 Joe Lau, Max Deutsch (Jan 22, 2014). Edward N. Zalta, ed:Externalism About Mental Content. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2014 Edition).
  19. Lawrence E Williams, Julie Y Huang, John A Baruch (2009). "The scaffolded mind: Higher mental processes are grounded in early experience of the physical world". European Journal of Social Psychology 39 (7): pp. 1257-1267.
  20. Andy Clark (1998). “Chapter 8: Magic Words: How Language Augments Human Computation”, Peter Carruthers, Jill Boucher: Language and thought: Interdisciplinary themes. Cambridge University Press, pp. 162-183. ISBN 978-0521637589. 
  21. Andy Clark (2008). Supersizing the Mind : Embodiment, Action, and Cognitive Extension. Oxford University Press, p. 31. ISBN 978-0199715534. 
  22. PE Griffiths and K Stotz (2000). "How the mind grows: a developmental perspective on the biology of cognition". Synthese 122 (1-2): pp. 29-51.
  23. Esther Thelen (1995)). “Chapter 3: Time-scale dynamics and the development of an embodied cognition”, Robert F Port, Timothy van Gelder, eds: Mind as motion: Explorations in the dynamics of cognition. MIT Press, pp. 69-100. ISBN 0-262-16150-8.