Thinking Loops: extending our capacity to think…

Thinking Loops

Extract from Andy Clark Supersizing the mind


Consider this famous exchange between the Nobel prize winning physicist Richard Feynman and the historian Charles Weiner. Weiner, encountering with an historian’s glee a batch of Feynmen’s original notes and sketches, remarked that the materials represented ‘a record of [Feynman’s] day-to-day work’ But instead of simply acknowledging this historic value, Feynman reacted with unexpected sharpness:


I actually did the paper’ he said

‘well’ Weiner said, ‘the work was done in your head, but the record of it is still here.’

‘No, its not a record, not really. It’s working. You have to work on paper and this is paper, Okay?’


Feynman’s suggestion is, at the very least, that the loop into the external medium was integral to his intellectual activity (the ‘working’) itself. But I would go further and suggest that Feynman was actually thinking on the paper. The loop through pen and paper is part of the physical machinery responsible for the shape of the flow of thoughts and ideas that we take, nonetheless, to be distinctively those of Richard Feynman. It reliably and robustly provides a functionality which, were it provided by goings-on in the head alone, we would have no hesitation in designating as part of the cognitive circuitry. Such considerations of parity, once we put our bioprejudices aside, reveal the outward loop as a functional part of an extended cognitive machine. Such body – and world-involving cycles are best understood, or so I shall argue, as quite literally extending the machinery of the mind out into the world – as building extended cognitive circuits that are themselves the minimal material bases for important aspects of human thought and reason. Such cycles supersize the mind.


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