Essays and Stories
by Seyed P. Razavi

Are our minds socially extended?

The extended mind thesis argues that at least some cognition happens outside the brain. Eros Moreira de Carvalho proposes that social actions constitute some mental processes. In this post, I’ll examine the argument for the socially extended mind thesis (SEMT). I’ll do this by way of first presenting its foundations: the extended mind thesis and Gibson’s affordances.

The Extended Mind Thesis (EMT)

In their 1998 paper, Andy Clark and David Chalmers introduced the parity principle as the basis of the extended mind thesis:

“If, as we confront some task, a part of the world functions as a process which, were it done in the head, we would have no hesitation in recognizing as part of the cognitive process, then that part of the world is (so we claim) part of the cognitive process.” (Clark and Chalmers, 1998)

As an example, they provide the case of Inga and Otto who want to make their way to a museum. Otto has Alzheimer’s disease and relies upon a notebook to capture all information he may need to remember. Whereas Inga accesses her memory to find the way, Otto consults his notebook. Clark and Chalmers argue that by the parity principle, Otto’s notebook acts as part of the cognitive process for Otto. In this way, Otto’s mind extends into his notebook.

Another example, provided by way of Merleau-Ponty (2012), is of a blind man who uses his cane to navigate the world. Whilst the man at first feels the cane in his hand, after a time of protracted use it becomes transparent to him. The assimilated use of the cane extends his tactile perception. By the parity principle, the cane is now an extension of the blind man’s cognitive process of perception.

The main lesson de Carvalho wishes to draw from EMT is that by use of these actions the individuals distribute the cognitive labour. Whether consulting a notebook or feeling around with a cane, the brain doesn’t do all the work. The brain outsources computing of the information in the environment. Furthermore, this process is transparent. For Otto he is remembering the way by consulting his notebook. For the blind man, he is feeling what is around him when he probes with his cane.

Gibson’s Affordances

Let us now turn to the second plank of de Carvalho’s argument. This starts with a radical change in the science of perception. Before James Gibson’s ecological approach, the prevalent view was an input-output model. Sensations were inputs into a cognitive system. The brain processed the raw information resulting in further cognitive processes or actions. This view lent itself to the ‘snapshot view of vision’. Researchers ran experiments that observed subjects under ideal conditions of stillness. They considered the eye analogous to a camera. Once the eye transmitted the information to the brain, the brain formed a picture in the mind. The job of the scientist was to isolate the information channels to the brain.

Yet, Gibson believed this view misguided. The main issue was how to parameterise all the incoming information in such a way to compute it. Representing all that data to form a picture was a formidable cognitive task. Instead, Gibson proposed a much simpler mechanism. Beginning with surface textures, vision painted broad strokes of the perceptual picture. This fixed the relationship between objects and their environment (termed ‘invariants’). This invariant information would be ‘stored’ in the world, then retrieved as needed.

This rich informational structure in the environment called for a different experimental approach. The focus became stimulus flux in situations where the perceiver moves her head and body through the environment. The invariants emerge only through a period of prolonged interaction. Action is necessary to produce the stimulus flux. Action also generates the information contained by picking out the invariants.

The main take away for de Carvalho is that the perceiver offloads the cognitive work to the ongoing interaction with the environment. Furthermore, this dissolves the old separation between input-outputs and information processing. Computation is no longer separated from action.

This process of picking out invariants is crucial to controlling behaviour. Gibson captures this idea in his theory of affordances. Affordances of the environment control behaviour, i.e. what is perceived as possible to do. Affordances is a relational term encompassing both the animal and its environment. Affordances are what actions the animal can take, based on its bodily and cognitive abilities.

These abilities are in turn the functions that have evolved or developed in the animal as an aid to its survival and flourishing. Abilities keep the animal adjusted to its environment. In turn, affordances in the environment interact with animals in determining their abilities.

Social Affordances

The next step is in extending the theory of affordances into the cultural meanings of objects. Gibson suggests a postbox “affords letter-mailing to a letter-writing human in a community with a postal system” (2015, 130). The affordance of letter-mailing connects the ability of letter-writing via the social affordance of a postal system.

Social affordances relate to social practices. Such practices are an example of what Gibson calls ‘behaviour that affords behaviour’. To see what some animal or person can do, to see what they afford, is a way of perceiving their mind. To see what a postbox affords, one is dependent on perceiving what others afford. That there is a postal worker who collects the mail. That there are letter writers who will post letters. That receiving an envelope in the post means there is a letter to read.

de Carvalho argues that cooperative interactions through social practice is what makes our minds socially extended. The social environment stores the information we need to make sense of some of the objects we encounter. In particular, situations where animals are exploring phenomenon together. For example, in the subtleties of body language or gazing at features of a region or object in the environment. This ability for joint attention allows animals to coordinate behaviour. They communicate and establish group bonds. Experiments with infants show this ability develops early and is vital to pre-linguistic coping with the world.

Is the mind socially extended?

With SEMT presented, I will consider a couple of concerns about the theory.

1) It should be obvious that if you have worries about EMT or Gibson’s Affordances, SEMT may suffer from similar problems. In particular, if you don’t find cognitive offloading to the environment as enough to suggest extension of the mind in the relevant sense. It seems to me that only a very narrow sense of cognition as information processing could justify the parity principle.

The information look up in Otto’s case is computational. If all that remembering consisted of was looking up information then Inga and Otto’s situations are no different. Whether this is all that occurs when we remember is more controversial. We don’t need to suggest what is missing is necessarily phenomenal or indeed a conscious process. All it might need is that it has to be sufficiently integrated in the whole cognitive architecture. Clark and Chalmers think Otto’s notebook or the blind-man’s cane are sufficiently coupled to qualify.

2) There is also a worry whether the transposition of visual affordances to social affordances is a justified move. In the case of joint attention, it is not clear what information is stored in the social environment as part of the affordance. Mind reading, as in the infant examples, depends in some cases on visual perception. In so far as visual perception can be studied usefully in the Gibsonian manner, there are affordances. But what cultural meaning is stored externally to the perceiver, especially for the infant? The move from gaze direction to social affordances needs further argument.

In summary, de Carvalho’s thesis brings together two interesting strands of extension and enactivism of the mind. It makes a decent case for the social extension of cognition. But if you are not already convinced by EMT, you will find this form of social enactivism more difficult to accept. Even so, there is something interesting here to develop. In particular, the further applications of Gibson’s theory outside of the area of visual perception. I expect to return to this topic at a later date.


de Carvalho, Eros Moreira. 2019. ‘Socially Extending the Mind through Social Affordances’. Automata’s Inner Movie: Science and Philosophy of Mind, 193.

Clark, Andy, and David Chalmers. 1998. ‘The Extended Mind’. Analysis 58 (1): 7–19.

Gibson, James J. 2015. The Ecological Approach To Visual Perception. Psychology Press & Routledge Classic Editions. New York: Taylor & Francis.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. 2012. Phenomenology of Perception. Translated by Donald A. Landes. New York: Routledge.