Outside the head

Most times , when I need to explain something,I end up scrabbling for a pen and some scrap of paper to draw on – maps, diagrams, key words – whatever it takes… But it never really occurred to me that the pen and paper were a necessary part of the thinking process…

In the episode of Radiolab called ‘Blame‘, during the second segment of the programme, Robert Krulwich gets into a discussion with David Eagleman about the gnarly topic of where responsibility lies in an era of neurocognitive explanations for human behaviour. Their debate revolved around this distinction that Krulwich unwittingly made between ‘me’ and ‘my brain’. Eagleman rightly pointed out that this was a false dichotomy which rests, I think, on a flawed language and a flawed set of ideas. However, for Eagleman, the answer was that the locus of the self is to be found entirely within the brain.

Not everyone agrees with this. Various writers have affirmed physical and social accounts of identity that point beyond the confines of the skull. (Malafouris and Tallis would be 2 examples.) I’ve found these ‘extra-cranial’ hypotheses intellectually attractive but not entirely persuasive as I couldn’t fathom the mechanism.

So.. now.. back to Alva Noë and his book, ‘Action in Perception’. Towards the end of the book, Noë is developing an account of “the locus of experience”. He writes, “experience might not be in the head. Whether it is depends on whether, as a matter of fact, the causal basis of experience depends on ongoing, causal interaction among the brain, body and environment. [Noë urges] that there is nothing in our phenomenology that should lead us to accept an internalist position on this.” [p 219].

 In his discussion he uses a really helpful concept, ‘the causal substrate of experience’. Imagine for a moment that you are drinking a glass of wine. “What is the causal substrate of the experience of the wine’s flavour? Perhaps this substrate is only neural, but perhaps it is not. For example, perhaps the only way – or the only biologically possible way – to produce just the flavour sensations one enjoys when one sips a wine is by rolling a liquid across one’s tongue. In that case, the liquid, the tongue and the rolling action would be part of the physical substrate for the experience’s occurrence.”  [p 220].

He follows this up by drawing on the work of Clark & Chambers. They were concerned with a slightly different but nonetheless relevant question of the ‘causal substrate of thought’ “Sometimes we calculate ‘in our heads’ but sometimes we calculate with a pencil and paper. Indeed, for a great many calculations that we can perform, the pencil and paper are necessary. If [they] are necessary, why not view them as part of the necessary substrate for the calculating experience.” At this point Noë draws on ideas by Clark & Chalmers (1998) “Some cognitive states […] may be partly external because, at least sometimes, these states depend on the use of symbols and artefacts that are outside the body. Maps, signs and writing implements may sometimes be as inextricably bound up with the workings of cognition as neural structures or internally realised symbols (if there are any). […] Where does the mind stop and the rest of the world begin. If active externalism is right then the boundary cannot be drawn at the skull. The mind reaches – or at least can reach, sometimes – beyond the limits of the body out into the world.” [p 220-221] Then, “[just] as Clark and Chalmers have argued that there is no theoretical obstacle to thinking that the vehicles of some cognitive processes may cross the boundary of the skull, so I am arguing that the vehicles of some experience too may extend out into the world (but not that it must do so).” [p221]

I find this set of ideas really helpful because through them he outlines a set of ideas that (potentially) explain how the vehicles of cognition and experience may extend out into the world (whilst leaving space for the possibility for some experiences to remain within the brain). Noë brings both of these together and extends them to argue that the same might hold true for consciousness (and identity?) more generally. In doing so Noë’s position challenges Eagleman’s and indeed takes up a strong counter position: “Consciousness is a phenomenon that occurs only against the background of the active life of the animal. There is no good reason for assuming that the only relevant background is the activity of the brain.” [p222]

On further reflection about the role of the paper and the pencil, it is only when I/we pick them up and use them that they (may) become part of the causal substrate of thought or experience. An inert object, I suspect, does not. This seems to me like another powerful argument for the position (within museums) that objects are at their most evocative when they are in a visitor’s hands being used to think or do.

Meanwhile, I wonder if I can use this to justify doodling in meetings?


About Bruce Davenport

Museum educator and researcher.
This entry was posted in Cognition, embodiment, identity, Objects, Perception. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Outside the head

  1. Kristie says:

    Fab Bruce(if slightly over my tired head). I used to get a whole lot more irritated by boys who would fiddle with pens/elastic bands etc when I was trying to lead group work with them, til I read more about how for some, twiddling is what keeps them concentrating. I’m much more compassionate about it now 😀

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