Could iPhones be part of our minds?

ElephantHow do our engagements with the everyday world contribute to the way we both go about it and think about it?  Could such contributions feed back upon and bootstrap our own capabilities, and in part form new and different ways of interacting with the world?  The situation of one Patrick Jones asks just these questions, and further seems to be an interesting case study in the on-going debate around the Hypothesis of the Extended Mind (or HEM, for short).

Patrick Jones suffers from the effects of Traumatic Brain Injury, of which there are many causes and effects.  In Patrick’s case, he suffers from extreme short-term memory loss.  But what is interesting about Patrick is the way in which he has employed Evernote; software that allows users to upload notes, pictures, and documents to a cloud server, which can then be accessed anywhere and at anytime by palm-pilots, computers and iPhones.  When Patrick runs into everyday problems, like dealing with email exchanges or attempting to remember what to buy at the grocery, he consults Evernote installed on his iPhone or Mac computer, and searches for relevant keywords and tags to help him connect the dots and form a reliable understanding of the situation he finds himself in.  In more philosophical vernacular, without a reliable biological short-term memory system, Patrick relies on a hybrid of internal/external and biological/technological resources instead.

What Patrick’s case seems to support, then, is the HEM.  This is HEM’s claim: that an agent’s interactions with the world may in part constitute cognitive systems.  These extended cognitive systems might (at least) allow for an agent to recapture lost capabilities (like with Patrick) or might indeed provide new and different possibilities for interacting with the world.  Such extended cognitive systems scaffold upon an agent’s capacities and abilities by allowing for the assembling of systems that spread across one’s brain, body and world.  Thus for Patrick, his iPhone might, in some situations (like grocery-shopping), be properly conceived as part of an extended short-term memory system.  I such situations, the iPhone is not only integral to explaining Patrick’s behaviour, but should indeed be considered as the causal supervenience base of that behaviour – in other words, that the iPhone is an actual part of the cognitive system that explains his behaviour.

This last point is contentious – there are different arguments and theories about what exactly constitutes an extended system, and indeed, if such systems really exist at all.  Further, there are different argumentative strategies to argue for such systems, and these strategies change the understanding of how these systems come to exist and pass away.  Clearly, the HEM is in early stages of development.  But what is clear is that both supporters and detractors, those for and against HEM, will need not only to look at interesting cases like Patrick’s use of Evernote – but indeed will have to explain them.

Related Articles:

Causal Theories of Mental Content 
The Embodied Cognition Research Programme 

3 thoughts on “Could iPhones be part of our minds?”

  1. Hi Pim,

    Thanks for your post, and point well taken. Obviously, the article doesn’t go in to the full details of Patrick’s case, which might have detailed how such a disposition could come to be. But I think we can construct a reasonable answer.

    I’m assuming for the sake of the argument, that despite his short-comings, Patrick can form reliable dispositions. Such dispositions rely on procedural memory, which seems to be a distinct aspect of memory from short-term memory. But then how could he have remember in the first instances to use Evernote, when such a reliable disposition wasn’t instantiated? Well, here I have another assumption, which is that Patrick has caregivers and family that assisted him when he was first getting used to Evernote, and encouraged him to use it to construct connections, make lists, and so on. This process gradually installed the reliable and reiterable disposition to go to Evernote when confused or unsure.

    So it seems plausible that Patrick can be ‘set-up’ if you will, to use Evernote in just the way that the article implies. But that’s probably not the end of the story. I’m sure the Patrick has plenty of structuring to his daily life, to make up for the fact that he has difficulty remembering such structure on his own. It also sounds like he has a loving family to help him out, which surely doesn’t hurt. All these structures can indeed scaffold on what biological resources Patrick can utilize, to assist him in his everyday life.

  2. I think it might be useful to note that, although it says that Patrick uses Evernote, it doesn’t say anywhere in the discussion that Patrick started using Evernote AFTER the onset of his short term memory loss.
    Second, amnesics have been shown to learn fundamental lessons through repetition and learn through implicit memory systems rather than explicit learning systems, such as short term memory. ( It also doesn’t say in this article, but after being told time and again that his mother had passed away (happening after the onset of HM’s memory loss), the intensity of his responses decreased drastically.
    To round off, the point of Patrick using Evernote is not to say that he could learn new things, it is to point out that, especially in a world with gradually expanding technologies, we are constantly off-loading our cognitive burden from inside of our heads and onto the world, wherever possible. Because Evernote, for Patrick, is a stable, reliable source of information, it makes total sense that it would serve as a form similar to what we often consider strictly cognitive.

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