Extended Mind-Wandering or Mind Invasion?

I am very much convinced by Bruineberg and Fabry’s idea that we can engage in episodes of extended mind-wandering, i.e. episodes of mind-wandering that are partly constituted by our interactions with certain artifacts. I have also felt compelled by their project, and agree with their call to investigate task-unrelated and non-harmonious extended cognition.

In this post, I want to explore a bit further the differences between certain episodes of absent-minded habitual smartphone use and mind-wandering. 

To this end, I suggest that we consider the following two cases that build on one of the examples that Fabry and Bruineberg provide in their paper:

AMANDA*: Amanda joins the queue for coffee. While progressing in the queue, she unintentionally starts thinking about her beloved cat, and her mind wanders freely from one topic to another (her cat, a conversation she heard the other day, climate change, the beauty of the sunlight as it entered through her window this morning, etc.). When she is next in the queue, her attention comes back to her present situation, and she orders her coffee (cf. Bruineberg and Fabry 2022, p. 4).

AMANDA**: Amanda joins the queue for coffee. While progressing in the queue, she draws out her phone and checks a number of apps. Her social media feed has specifically selected ads concerning green smoothies, and plant-based protein bars. When she is next in the queue, she puts her phone away, and she orders her coffee plus some other products that she did not intend to buy before using her smartphone (cf. idem, p. 4).

According to Bruineberg and Fabry’s proposal, both AMANDA* and AMANDA** display episodes of mind-wandering (the former of the unextended type, the latter of the extended type). But is this the correct analysis? Are these two episodes similar enough that they can be said to belong to the same family of phenomena?

To be clear, I am not questioning whether there is any extended cognition going on in the second case. I understand extended cognition along similar lines to how Bruineberg and Fabry understand it (i.e. in terms of how complementary organismic, technological and other environmental features integrate while giving rise to a cognitive process). That is why, insofar as there is sufficient integration (which includes, as Bruineberg and Fabry note, a particular type of causal relation), we can expect differences between extended and unextended forms of cognition. 

What I do question is the extent to which AMANDA** qualifies as (extended) mind-wandering, and I am curious to see what Bruineberg and Fabry’s thoughts are on this matter.

Here are some ideas to get the conversation started. 

Due to the particularities of smartphones, and the apps we access in virtue of interacting with them, some forms of habitual smartphone use, such as unguided and unintentional scrolling, sometimes give rise to cognitive episodes that can be heavily “curated” and/or organized by others (e.g. by content creators, by other users, by designers, by advertisers, or by various malicious agents). This makes me question the sense in which some of these episodes can be considered episodes of mind-wandering, in which, at least intuitively, I would say that we loosely and freely wander among our own thoughts, or within our own imagination.

One might claim that, given that external influences are always present (e.g. social learning, enculturation and/or social interactions), the difference between AMANDA* and AMANDA** is just a matter of degree and their sources of influence, so that both can be counted as cases of mind-wandering.

Alternatively, one could perhaps argue that, given that throughout this process Amanda’s goal(s) can be easily modified, and not to her own, but rather to other people’s benefit, what is going on in AMANDA** is not a process of mind-wandering, but rather a cognitive episode that could more accurately be described as an episode of extended mental manipulation or mind invasion (to borrow Jan Slaby’s phrase). This could happen when our mental processes are redirected by external inputs towards goals that are not our own, giving rise to what could be a form of alienation.

Drawing from Bruineberg and Fabry’s analysis, one could insist that the cognitive phenomena captured in AMANDA* and AMANDA** are indeed two different forms of mind-wandering. If that were the case, then one would need to seriously address the risks that extended mind-wandering entails, especially due to the particularities of the technologies that participate in the cognitive processes in question (something in line with what Bruineberg and Fabry call the functionality thesis). 

However, exploring the possibility that some forms of absent-minded smartphone use are episodes of extended mental manipulation or mind invasion, rather than extended mind-wandering, could be worthwhile. For this could help us engage in a nuanced analysis of the technologies that we interact with, the possibilities they afford, and the transformative effect that they have on our cognitive lives. 

So, is inattentively scrolling through my IG feed a form of mind-wandering or a form of mental manipulation? Can it be both? What is the relation between one and the other? The issues raised by these questions go beyond any mere terminological choice, as they are crucial for understanding the effect that interacting with different technologies has on our (cognitive) behaviors. 

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