Extended Mind Poll

Is the mind in the head?

As someone recently pointed out on this blog, there is a large stream of recent books defending the view that mental states, or processes, or systems, extend beyond the nervous system.  It would be interesting to know how many people, or at least how many Brains readers, find this view compelling.

Of course, we could argue all day about what we mean by being in the head, distinguish between theses about states, processes, and systems, and whether this is a matter of substance or stipulation.  But that would make it difficult to compare individual answers.  So we need to try something more crude.

Put the issue of mental content (externalism vs. internalism) aside.  Just consider the question of the spatiotemporal location of mental states and processes, and cast your vote in the comments.

Is the mind in the head?

I say, yes.


  1. A yes… but with a moderate reserve. What is to me clear is that sooner or later we have to reconcilize both views: the neurocentric perspective and the embodied perspective of consciousness.
    I think T. Khun could have a say here. Who knows if some compelling evidence is awaiting to arrive to confirm or disconfirm our more traditional ideas about the phenomenon of interest.

  2. Probably most of it is, in most normal people and animals. But this is not essential.

    I think in the future, neuroprosthetics will help us put a finer point on this question.

    Imagine a scenario like the following, which is an active research programme in the lab I work in. Imagine a quadraplegic controlling a robotic arm with the help of electrodes implanted in a premotor region, such that external hardware is ‘interpreting’ the activity in that region and producing the intended movement in the arm. Also imagine the robotic arm uses artificial transducers to relay information about somatosensory parameters to electrodes embedded in primary somatosensory cortex, so the person’s brain actually gets feedback about what is happening in the artificial limb.

    Is all the representing going on in the person’s head? I think not.

    If we can find similar examples in nature, I would say that not all the representing is happening inside the skull.

    Again, this is all focusing on the locations of vehicles of representations, not the content or its etiology (which is almost certainly partly external).

  3. I think it’s disappointing that so much of the debate has focused on bizarre prosthetics, when it is the stuff that makes us human – not super-human – that extends into the environment. That’s a “no”.

  4. Rob Wilson

    Man, I thought this was a simple vote, not some confessional (“Mine’s not”) or wannabe (“I wish mine were”) forum.

    No. No. And no. (That’s for me, Andy Clark, and Malcolm MacIver … 🙂 .)

    But once the voting closes, will you tell us the RIGHT answer?

  5. It seems a useful strategy to use various prosthetics to make a conceptual point: the conceptual point being that it is a contingent fact, at best, that our mind-vehicles are in our heads.

    Further, once this point is made with prosthetics (I don’t find them bizarre at all: the lab I work in has controlled robotic arms using spike train activity recorded from monkey motor cortex), this should at least point in the direction of the kinds of features we should look for as hallmarks of the external mind. It should provide conceptual resources to help us identify extended minds in the absence of prosthetics.

  6. Ken

    Yes, yes, and yes.

    That’s for me, Fred Adams, and Robert Johnson.

    “The stuff I got’ll bust your brains out, baby. Hoo hoo, it’ll make you lose your mind.” Stop breakin’ down blues.

    Dead bluesmen count, right?

  7. Here’s a vote for no.

    The brief explanation is this: it doesn’t seem to me to make much sense to speak of the spatial locations of powers or abilities of much of anything. On not so crazy hypothesis that the organ of thought is the brain (no, not the lungs, and by “organ of thought” I don’t just mean the favorite thing for the mind to shake and wiggle), we’d not expect there to be a yes answer to the question as to whether the mental is all located where the nervous system is.

  8. Alex

    Yes and no. Now are mental images subjective and private? If the answer is yes, than are mental images physically real? If yes, than where are they located? In my brain perhaps. Now what is the concept “my brain” but a mental image. Perhaps I could have an MRI of my brain (the physical thing) but what is that but a perceptual image. The MRI of my brain exists as an image on a computer screen so the image on the screen is within my visual field not within my brain. Now I assume it’s because of my brain that the image and indeed my visual field exist in the first place and it’s because I see the MRI image on the screen that I know that my brain is uniquely involved in my experience. Maybe 3 dimensions of space and one dimension if time allow us represent images of our physical relations to the environment but not the actual processes of consciousness themselves.

  9. I agree that the mind is in the head but I believe that the hipotesys of extended mind is very important for study the role of external support in cognition!
    I believe in occurent external vehicle for content… but I’m not sure of existence of intrinsic content…

  10. A whole 3000 characters with which to reply. How lavish!

    Put a few hundred people, together with Bob Barker, in a television studio and ask yourself the question again. Is the resulting “group mind” inside each participant’s head or outside? Or both? Or should we define what happens as being in the domain of something other than mind?

    Now isolate yourself for a few months in a cabin in the woods. Just you and all those trees (caution: synecdoche for non-conscious natural objects). Why has your mind changed? Have you come to experience group mind with trees? Is there ever a time when your mind is not a group mind? But then is it your mind at all?

    If you define “mind” as something that only happens in your head then by definition it only happens in your head and you have one clear set of answers to the above. If you are asking whether one’s “own” mind can exist “beyond the nervous system,” you are working toward a new definition of mind — presumably, one that strive to be more in line with observed phenomena. In the end, then, the question you seem to be asking is: “Can there be a more highly functional and/or exactly descriptive definition of the individual mind that integrally includes external processing?” One that is rational as opposed to mystical?

    Any decent answer to that requires more time and space than are available this evening. Suffice it to offer up the thought that mind (as opposed to brain) might just have no precise spatial location, external or internal.

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