Extended mind design

Things outside the skull play an important role in our cognitive processes.

Notebooks aid information storage and retrieval. Pen and paper supplement our working memory. Well placed post-it notes bring things to our attention in a timely manner.

We all extend our minds in ways like these. Most people don’t think about this much, and build out their extended minds in a haphazard fashion.

You can probably become fitter, happier and more productive if you reflect on the design and maintenance of your extended mind. This article offers a brief, practical survey of the terrain.

Why take this perspective?

The extended mind perspective encourages us to think in terms of externalising cognitive function. This helps us develop a coherent strategy for engaging with techniques and tools commonly presented under rubrics of “productivity advice”, “lifehacking” or “metaskills”.

The extended mind perspective offers a useful model, whether or not you think functionalism and the extended mind thesis are true in some stronger sense than that.

Why care?

A good external mind system lets you free up scarce internal cognitive resources. With skill (that’s another topic) you can then reallocate these resources to the things that most merit your attention.

A good external mind system will also improve “your” performance on the surprisingly wide range of tasks which can be partially or fully externalised.

Humans have been extending their minds using technology for thousands of years. For example:

Suanpan (Chinese abacus) is mentioned in documents dating from the 2nd century BC.

Things are getting especially exciting right now, as smartphones, connectivity and cloud services enable powerful new extended mind systems. The utility of a cheap, well designed external mind has greatly increased in the last 10 years, and this upward trend in utility will accelerate along with advances in connectivity, artificial intelligence and human-computer interfaces.

How to design your extended mind

Practical implementations of extended mind systems vary greatly.

I will refer to the collection of software and hardware that support the system as an extended mind “stack”. The configuration of these components, and the way they relate to each other, I call “architecture”.

Some desirable qualities for any extended mind system [1]:

  • Accessible: external resources should be easily available when needed.
  • Low friction: transfer from “internal” to “external” should be cheap, fast and easy.
  • Reliable: external resources should perform as expected. Systems should not have single points of critical failure.
  • Safe: the system should have failsafes. If external resources are unexpectedly unavailable, you should not become extremely vulnerable (e.g. due to a lack of essential information or cognitive capacity).
  • Secure: external resources should have robust access control, so that sensitive information can be stored and manipulated externally without hesitation.
  • Simple: the system should have few components and interfaces.
  • Transparent: it should be easy to understand how the system works, to detect failures, and to debug and make changes when necessary.
  • Trustworthy: information retrieved from external resources should be more-or-less automatically endorsed. It should be deemed about as trustworthy as something retrieved clearly from biological memory.

In the appendix, I sketch out the major features of my current extended mind system. For now though, the following table presents a few examples of cognitive functions that are highly susceptible to externalisation:

Extended mind and world

When should we think of something as part of our extended mind? In their classic paper, Clark and Chalmers (1998) say we should include any part of the world that performs a process which, if it were done in the head, we would call a cognitive process. Since then, more restrictive criteria have been suggested (c.f. Clark (2010) and Smart (forthcoming), pp.3–4).

My preferred heuristic says that some resource X is part of my extended mind iff:

  1. it performs a process which, if it were done in the head, we would call a cognitive process.
  2. it is readily available when needed.

The ‘readily available’ condition is intentionally blurry. It allows that external resources can be added and subtracted on the fly. You may not carry your abacus with you at all times, but when it is ready-to-hand, it is usefully thought of as part of your extended mind.

This should be easier

A well designed external mind system is an increasingly valuable asset. Yet, in 2016, it’s hard for a individuals to design and implement such systems.

To make things better, we’ll have to address some daunting user interface design challenges. In the next decade, technical progress in artificial intelligence, augmented reality and virtual reality will lead to new UI paradigms and new extended mind stacks and architectures. Product designers will come up with better abstraction layers (Google Now and Facebook M are promising early examples), and more people will recognise the value of thinking carefully about the design of their extended minds.

The future looks promising. In the meantime, I’d like to see better sources of advice for people who want to use existing tools to build and refine their extended minds.

[1] This list borrows heavily from Clark (2010).

[2] Use a sleep cycle sensitive alarm clock to avoid being woken during a deep sleep phase. For Android smartphones I recommend Sleep As Android.

I’d like to hear your thoughts on this topic. What does your extended mind look like right now? Would you like some help making it better? Reach me at:


Appendix 1. Further reading

Clark, A. and Chalmers, D. (1998) ‘The Extended Mind’, Analysis 58:10–23 <http://consc.net/papers/extended.html>

Clark, A. (2010) ‘Memento’s revenge: The extended mind, extended’. In R. Menary (Ed.), Papers on the Extended Mind<http://www.philosophy.ed.ac.uk/people/clark/pubs/Mementosrevenge2.pdf>

Clark, A. et al. (2013) ‘The Extended Mind Thesis’, Oxford Bibliographies<http://www.oxfordbibliographies.com/view/document/obo-9780195396577/obo-9780195396577-0099.xml>

Perez-Quinones, M. et al. (2008) ‘Personal Information Ecosystems: Design Concerns for Net-Enabled Devices’ <https://scholar.vt.edu/access/content/group/5deb92b5-10f3-49db-adeb-7294847f1ebc/perez2008personal.pdf>

Smart, P (forthcoming) ‘Emerging Digital Technologies: Implications for Extended Conceptions of Cognition and Knowledge’ in A. J. Carter, A. Clark, J. Kallestrup, O. S. Palermos & D. Pritchard (Eds.), Extended Epistemology<http://eprints.soton.ac.uk/379969/1/Emerging%20Digital%20Technologiesv9.pdf>

Wikipedia contributors (2015), ‘Intelligence amplification’, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, <https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Intelligence_amplification&oldid=674028717>

Appendix 2. My extended mind

Here’s what my own extended mind system looks like at the time of writing. There is much room for improvement — I’d love to hear your thoughts and suggestions. Likewise, if you’d like to share your system, I’d love to see it.

The supporting hardware is predictable: MacBook Pro, Moto G smartphone and a decent laptop bag.

[1] Using Gmail archive for long term memory somewhat threatens my attempt to use it as an elective inbound attention channel (it’s too easy to unintentionally see new inbound items when retrieving information from the archive). I made a Chrome extension that fixes this.

[2] I disable notifications from these channels and so only see new items when I elect to check for them.

[3] I don’t use Facebook, LinkedIn etc, for the sorts of reasons Cal Newport writes about.

[4] Colleagues, friends and family know my urgent email address. So too do important alerting services. Anything sent to my urgent email address triggers a notification on my smartphone.