Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The extended mind

The brain and body is limited

Human has a limited brain and body. Though there are different thoughts and ideas that come into mind but pursuing them all is impossible. And even it is very difficult to reach a limited list of goals. One of the cause is the limited capability to remember all the tasks needed to be performed.

The brain is just like a computer

To a computer scientist the brain is comparable to a computer. And it has memory just like the computers. The memory can fall into two catagories,
- Short term memory or working memory(WM) in psychology is something more aligned to the RAM of the computer.
- Long term memory in psychology is like the hard disk.

On execution, thoughts and work processes are loaded in working memory to let it shuffle and get things done. For example, suppose a person is opening a lock with his key. At first, he thinks about the key in his pocket and grabs that in one hand, while he saves the goal(to open the lock) in the WM(working memory). And then he inserts the key into the lock to open it. This is easy.

Multitasking and context-switching problem

But the brain is not as good as the computer when it has to perform two cognitive tasks together. Suppose a person is thinking to open the lock and he has grasped the key in his hand. He has the goal to open the lock in his WM. At that very moment, someone calls him on the cell phone. The WM is full of the urgency of incoming call. As WM is limited, the thoughts to open the lock may be erased by the new information. He may mistakenly grab the key and put that in the ear. This may happen. Doing more than one cognitive task at a time may mess things up.

It is possible to extend the mind

For human it is hard to multitask. So the right thing is to do things one by one. If he has different things to do then it is helpful to maintain a list. A to-do-list. It is a small paper that holds your memory for future execution. In this way human can extend his mind.

People have used this idea of extended mind for long time. One of such extension is the written books. The books are the concepts of mind that are put into papers for recalling or for transmitting to people. Or the extended mind can be any written paper. Suppose someone wants to sum two big numbers (eg, 23874283 + 238479283742 = ? ). It may not be possible to do that using the WM only. But it is possible to do that easily using pencil and paper(like in the young days).

So it is a very old idea. Humans are curious about the inner working of themselves. To know the limitations is one way to know that. And to know the work-around is the novelty.

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