Your mind is not YOUR mind

Sorry about the light posting these past couple of weeks, I went through an ultra busy phase.  I’ll start reviewing some social neuroscience research again tomorrow, but I thought I’d try a quick post about how intimately linked the mind and environment are.

Let’s start by asking ourselves what we mean by our mind.  Generally, we can reduce this to our brain, right?  Synapses fire, neurons compute and we think and interact with the world.  Most neurons receive input via electrical or chemical interactions with other neurons.  But not all of them do!  Clearly, I’ve been stressing the role of neurohormones and other peptides and how they relate to the brain; but the brain interfaces with and receives input from the whole body, so in a way the brain and the body are only somewhat distinct.  The body is a kind of fuzzy extension of the brain.  Our brain also receives direct input from the environment; the light hitting our eyes, the sound hitting our ears, etc.  One has to realize that our mind cannot exist without the input to the brain from the outside world.  This is one reason why projects like the Blue Brain are somewhat silly.

This philosophy is, I think, called the Extended Mind.  And this isn’t some wacky theoretical idea that will never affect you; we’re actually going through a technological phase that will radically reshape our extended mind.  CNet tries to give a good example of that:

Google, in essence, becomes a part of you. Imagine Google playing a customized audio commentary based on what you look at while on a tourist trip and then sharing photo highlights with your friends as you go. Or Google taking over your car when it concludes based on your steering response time and blink rate that you’re no longer fit to drive. Or your Google glasses automatically beaming audio and video to the police when you say a phrase that indicates you’re being mugged.

The article ends by being more than a bit silly.  But we need to focus on this part here.  We’ve put our memories on paper so long that we forget that we have an external memory (external hard drive, if you will).  These memories aren’t really well integrated into our minds – we have to go out and find and read the book or notes for them to be useful. Now, Google Goggles and such promise to fully integrate external manifestations of our mind, blurring the difference between brain and external world.

These external manifestations currently take the form of factual memories and actions.  But our remembrances are also a creation of our interaction with the world.  The Independent has a good article on how memories are not fully ‘our own’:

One 54-year-old identical twin, on hearing the other claim ownership of the memory of a roller-skating injury from when they were eight or nine, responded indignantly. “Well, that actually happened to me if you don’t mind… I think you’ll find if you think really hard it was me.” The other, yielding ground, eventually responded: “Oh well, I guess we get confused; it happened so long ago.”

Now, from the previous discussion, it should be clear that memories being ‘our own’ doesn’t truly make sense because our whole mind is extended outside of our brain.  Still, the idea that our memories are almost totally unreliable, that they can be fabricated and based on what we hear other people say?  That we can share memories?  That sounds crazy and a bit disturbing (to me at least!).  But it’s true: our minds are not our own.  They are a combination of our brain, our body, and our physical and social environment.  There is truth to the saying that no man is an island.

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