Cognition: Extended Beyond Our Bodies

by Kristie Le

deco image: skeleton in thinking pose

Cognition is how we process information. Typically, we may believe that cognition starts and stops within our brains. But by exploring the concept of externalism, we can see that our minds require more from the environment than we would think. I will introduce the extended mind hypothesis, by philosophers Clark and Chalmers, as a more interactable type of externalism. This hypothesis will show that we use cognitive tools to extend our cognition beyond the body.

Keywords: cognition, philosophy, artificial intelligence, cognitive tool, externalism

Cognition. The process of how our minds process information and learn from our actions. It is important to mention the difference between the mind and cognition as the mind entails phenomenal consciousness and qualia, how we feel about something, while cognition is simply the act of perceiving, learning, remembering, and so forth (Adams and Aizawa 48). Typically, we imagine cognition as our ability to act intelligently in the physical world. Others consider cognition as our mental ability to solve problems and some believe cognition is only created from the brain. There is a question of whether we use our brains or if cognition is a part of who we are. Some may argue that the brain functions autonomously, much like breathing or blinking, as we do not have to actively think about what parts to turn on or off. This paper will introduce the idea that our brains are not the only part of our minds; rather, our minds can extend outside the boundaries of the brain by using cognitive technologies. This externalism idea will be discussed through the extended mind hypothesis by Clark and Chalmers. I will also introduce various examples and works to form a strong foundation on why the environment is an important element for externalism. These examples will help us understand that the key to facilitating externalism is within the cognitive tool. Potential pitfalls of the extended mind hypothesis will be mentioned as well in this essay. By discussing all these points, we will begin to understand how cognition can exist beyond the biological body.

Introduction to Externalism

Externalism is the idea that mental events depend on the outside world to function. Consider the idea of riding a bike in a busy city on a familiar route. While cycling in a city with beeping cars, pedestrians, and traffic lights, the biker must factor this information to get to their destination. They must internally and externally remember certain landscapes and cues to stop biking or react when a person steps in front of our bike. This action is no small feat and it requires individuals to learn and exploit the external environment. Thus, the outside world can be arguably used in aiding cognition. I can see how others would argue that our brain is doing all the work; however, this notion is not entirely the case. For example, many times we use certain landmarks as memory place holders. We can remember other things around the landmark easier where we otherwise would not have remembered. The extended mind hypothesis, by Clark and Chalmers, can be used to elaborate on the concept of out of body memory place holders.

The extended mind hypothesis demonstrates how the mind takes up and uses environmental space to promote and enhance cognition. Clark provides three points in proving the extended mind hypothesis: the philosophical, social-technical, and ethical (“Andy Clark – What Is Extended Mind”). First, we must ask the philosophical question: why do we traditionally think that cognition cannot exist outside the brain? Without physical representations such as the environment, cognition would be useless. The idea is that our minds tend to tap into derived content; therefore, the environment is necessary for cognition. In respect to facial recognition, humans have evolved the ability to discern certain features and representations so that the brain is activated to understand and recognize certain faces (Sheehan and Nachman 3). If the face is injected by Botox, the brain no longer be able to register certain facial expressions as the brain recognizes expressions by scanning for certain dimensions. If these dimensions change, reading emotions can be hard (Chang and Tsao 975). When we look at a familiar face making a smiling expression, we would compare the experience against what we recognize from before. We recognize the individual as happy, for instance. However if Botox is used, the brain would have a hard time discerning the expression because the topographical indicators for smiling are stiffened. We would have to rely on other cues, like laughing sounds, to indicate that the individual is happy. This shows how important the derived content is because we rely on experience to give us information.

 Second, humans have gravitated towards using cognitive tools like pencil and paper as forms of expression; without these cognitive tools, the progression to elevated thought and expression is arguably stunted. This evolution in our species cannot be ignored. It shows that through tools, cognition is applicable in different forms to help us evolve further as a species. For instance, putting thoughts on paper can help us organize ourselves better than if we had to conceptually do so in our brains. This example extends to the writing of a novel. Realistically, we cannot create a novel solely in our heads. We need to provide complex details and edits that come with physically writing a novel. Pencil and paper or a computer are tools that can be utilized to write, organize, develop, and edit the story more efficiently.

deco image: pencil and paper
Photo by Jan Kahánek on Unsplash

Finally, the ethical use of the extended mind hypothesis is explained with an example of a man suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. He consults his notebook, a cognitive tool, to remember. Without this notebook, he would be at a loss as this notebook is extending his mental space. The notebook serves him in the way that his memory did before he developed Alzheimer’s disease (Clark and Chalmers 12). In this way, the notebook is aiding his mental processing. It is important to note that ethical use of the extended mind hypothesis is not limited to cognitive disabilities but can be applied to everyday activities. Even for those of us without cognitive disease allocate memories elsewhere, leaving us room to do more with our minds without having to save space for specific information. A perfect example of this is phone numbers stored in a cell phone (Wright, “Mindware”). How many phone numbers can we remember without referring to our smartphone? Most of us would probably remember a few phone numbers but not all phone numbers on our contact list. Another example of ethical use is the reliance on an agenda to keep track of daily activities. The agenda allows us to open space in our brains to remember important things other than scheduled dates and times. We tend to gravitate toward these cognitive tools because they allow us to complete tasks or obtain mental states that our biological brain cannot achieve alone.

Cognition should not be restricted to the physical vehicles that are the neurons in the brain. It is important to realize that other tools can be used to facilitate our cognition as well. Through these three points, we can see that our mind constantly relies on the environment to function. Additionally, these points create the foundation of how cognition can reach out and extend itself using cognitive tools.

Cognitive Tools

Cognitive tools are items that aid cognition and play a large role in extending cognition beyond our biological bodies. The coupling of humans with cognitive tools makes the cognitive tool and the mind one seamless system. It might be strange to think that these cognitive tools can function as part of the mind. However, not all tools are cognitive tools and there strict guidelines to consider the distinction between two. For instance, it might be tempting to think that using a search engine is an act of aiding in cognition, especially if it is being used to obtain forgotten information. Clark and Chalmers state their criteria on how certain tools can be classed as cognitive (Clark 197):

  1. the item is used consistently
  2. the information must be easily accessible
  3. the information is automatically endorsed
  4. information must be consciously endorsed in the past.

These four criteria can be illustrated through a thought experiment involving Igna and Otto who are traveling separately to a museum. Igna uses her memory to discern the location of the museum whereas Otto, who has Alzheimer’s disease, consults his notebook as his memory. Both characters in this situation acknowledge the existence and location of the museum with the only difference being that Igna had to process her memory while Otto’s memory is obtained from a notebook (Clark and Chalmers 12). This notebook qualifies as a cognitive tool because Otto consults it consistently, it is easily accessible, and its contents are automatically endorsed by him. For Igna, she refers to her neurons the same way Otto does to his notebook. This example illustrates how cognitive tools run parallel to the way we refer to our thoughts and brain. We automatically trust and rely on our neurons to give us the correct information, although sometimes the information can be wrong. It is difficult for items to be a cognitive tool but, if extended and integrated as an essential part of memory up to Clark and Chalmer’s standards, the coupling is possible.

Potential Pitfalls

Some might think that cognitive tools are just accessories for the mind, and not the mind itself being extended into other mediums. Philosophers Adams and Aizawa argued about cognitive processes that include tools with the cognitive state. They ask why the environment must be a part of the cognitive process and not just a contribution. It is important to note that Adams and Aizawa are not rejecting what Clark and Chalmers are hypothesizing but rather they want to add additional criteria for the extended mind hypothesis.

Adams and Aizawa’s main point is that it is a natural assumption to think of cognitive tools to not literally process information for us. However, Clark and Chalmers stated, “If a part of the world functions as a process which, were it done in the head, we would recognize as part of the cognitive process, then that part of the world is a part of the cognitive process.” This quote delivers the idea of how abstract and inclusive cognitive processing can be. Cognitive processing does not have to specifically be a brain’s neural interaction but rather a way for the mind to acquire knowledge. This includes, but is not limited to, the interaction of the muscles in arms moving to use a pencil (Wright, “Chalmers and Clark”). A different process does not mean that we must exclude externalism from being cognitive.

deco image: pencil in hand
Photo by Sam Rios on Unsplash

The extra criteria proposed by Adams and Aizawa can be broken down into two parts: non-derived content and cognitive process. Specifically, Adams and Aizawa want non-derived content to be included in the cognitive processing definition. Non-derived representation is how cognitive states do not originate from conventions or social practices (Adams and Aizawa 48). Non-derived representation can simply be using imagination. We can imagine a shape oriented in various ways without looking at it physically. This thought leads to Adam and Aizawa’s second point which is the cognitive process. They point out that using our brain to refer to memories is non-derived content. Therefore, referring to a notebook is derived content, thus making cognitive tools non-cognitive. There are some arguments to be made for these claims:

  1. If we include the entire process of using muscles with cognitive tools, we are including the entire cognitive process, much like how we will have to include the neurological and biological processes in remembering. This includes incorporating the environment into our whole thought process. The cognitive process must be inclusive of all things that helps it perform.
  2. Non-derived content has two issues. One, it brings up the question of what should and should not be inclusive in the definition of cognition. This does include the biological mechanisms in which Adams and Aizawa did not address. Two, we must remember that non-derived content came from analyzation of derived representations (Clark 202). Every image we manipulate in our brains, we have experienced them before from derived representations. The derived content affects the structure and nature of the non-derived content to the extent that we cannot tell them apart. Adams and Aizawa may be going in too specifically on cognitive processes and representation such that they are forgetting the bigger picture. There are no definitive rules about what is cognitive. The definition of cognitive in it of itself is broad.

Indeed, the cognitive tool is not born with us. It is not attached to our biological bodies as a part of a neurological processing model. However, coupling between the mind and environment is essential in extending cognition. We can look at non-human primates to exemplify this hypothesis. Primates have context-specific calls where meaning can change based on the external environment. The environment and call pair are necessary for call receivers to interpret the meaning of a call (Wheeler and Fischer 195). This illustrates how the brain needs a dynamic environment as a tool to demonstrate its capabilities. Additionally, it shows that media are powerful in drawing out cognition from within. Expanding our use in tools like the environment or cognitive tools, we can have cognition beyond our minds. Therefore, coupling is essential for us to facilitate cognitive extension.


The extended mind hypothesis introduces a lot of discussions regarding cognition. Although the conventional turn of thought is to say that cognition exists only in our bodies, as highlighted by intracranialist beliefs, science is starting to recognize the impact of the environment on cognition. In cognitive science, the mark of cognition is not defined to be localized. Cognition is abstract. This idea leaves room to hypothesize about transcranial or extracranial cognitive processing. We can begin to see cognition through a different lens. Perhaps in the future, we will be able to truly define what cognition is.

For now, we must acknowledge that there are external factors beyond our biological capacities that contribute to cognition. This acknowledgement is the first step in defining what cognition is and what limitations it can have. The extended mind hypothesis utilizes the abstractness of cognition to be able to validate cognitive tools and coupling. We see this when tools, like a notebook, are used as memory storage banks similar to our neurons. This may mean that other aspects of cognition, like sensing, can be extended to tools as well. Future work on the extended mind hypothesis can potentially create creative ways cognition can be externalized.

Works Cited

Adams, Frederick, and Kenneth Aizawa. The Bounds of Cognition. Blackwell Publishing, 2010.

“Andy Clark – What Is Extended Mind?” YouTube, uploaded by Closer To Truth, 19 Apr. 2018,

Chang, Le, and Doris Y. Tsao. “The Code for Facial Identity in the Primate Brain.” Cell, vol. 169, no. 6, 2017, pp.1013–1028, doi:10.1016/j.cell.2017.05.011.

Clark, Andy. Mindware: an Introduction to the Philosophy of Cognitive Science. 2nd ed., Oxford University Press, 2014.

Clark, A., and D. Chalmers. “The Extended Mind.” Analysis, vol. 58, no. 1, 1998, pp. 7–19, doi:10.1093/analys/58.1.7.

Sheehan, Michael J., and Michael W. Nachman. “Morphological and Population Genomic Evidence That Human Faces Have Evolved to Signal Individual Identity.” Nature Communications, vol. 5, no. 1, 2014, pp.1–10, doi:10.1038/ncomms5800.

Wheeler, Brandon C., and Julia Fischer. “Functionally Referential Signals: A Promising Paradigm Whose Time Has Passed.” Evolutionary Anthropology: Issues, News, and Reviews, vol. 21, no. 5, 2012, pp. 195–205, doi:10.1002/evan.21319.

Wright, Sarah. “Mindware by Andy Clark, Chapter 9: cognitive technologies.” Introduction to cognitive science, Apr. 2019, University of Georgia, Athens. Lecture.

Wright, Sarah. “Chalmers and Clark: The extended mind.” Introduction to cognitive science, Apr. 2019, University of Georgia, Athens. Lecture.


Big thanks to Dr. Sarah Wright for not only teaching introduction to cognitive science but also in helping me with editing. I’d also like to thank our class TA, Claire Mills, the writing center at UGA, and Pristine Disnute for helping with editing and reviewing this paper, as well.

Citation style: MLA
Title image credits: Photo by Mathew Schwartz on Unsplash