Sunday, February 6, 2022

The Embodied Mind: A New Way of Thinking


I took this photograph at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. If you look carefully,
you can see me at the instant I took the photo in the upper right hand corner of the
image. But it is not really me but a reflection, reflecting not reality but a digital
image. That makes sense in Eastern philosophy where self is considered an
illusion: Nothing in and of itself but merely a reflection of all that surrounds us.

In America, we place individual rights over the needs of society, probably more than any other country. We place human beings over nature. We place mind over body. And we worship our free-market economic system requiring perpetual growth – which exists nowhere else in nature except in cancer. 

That’s the paradigm we live under. But what if none of it is true?

That was the position Gregory Bateson took, whom I became enamored of while in graduate school; he was an acknowledged genius across multiple disciplines, as well, at least for a while, Margaret Mead’s husband.  According to him, the mind isn't locked inside our bony skulls but extends out into our bodies, the objects we use, the people we know, and, ultimately, into all of society and nature beyond. He spelled out this thesis in  “Steps to an Ecology of Mind.”⁠1

Bateson’s vision was considered wacky when he proposed it in the 1960s, but it is going mainstream today: “The idea that our stomachs and heart have a say in how we think and feel and that Google is now part of our brains may not seem that controversial. However, most of us aren’t ready to swallow the notion that when a mathematician solves an equation using a whiteboard, that his thinking actually takes place on the whiteboard itself.”⁠2

Nevertheless, according to the philosopher Andy Clark, now a leading light in this field, the tools we use to help us think, whether language, smartphones, or whiteboards, are all the same: they are part of thought itself.⁠3 He contends that these props are what sets us apart from animals, whose brains are quite similar to ours. “The difference is due to our heightened ability to incorporate props and tools into our thinking, to use them to think thoughts we could never have otherwise.”⁠4

What Clark does find ridiculous is the notion that pure thought is possible. He asks us to remember what role our brain’s intelligence played at the beginning of human evolution: it wasn’t abstract thinking, but to assist us in “running away from predators and toward mates and food. A mind’s first task, in other words, was to control a body.” 

Clark is one of the most-cited philosophers alive. He has inspired research in  neuroscience, psychology, linguistics, artificial intelligence, robotics, and other disciplines more distant. The Extended Mind has become a hot topic, now renamed “The Embodied Mind” because, in essence, the body is the mind.

Academics across all these fields have found, quite unexpectedly, that their research coincides with the core teachings of Buddhism: both the idea that the independent self is an illusion, and that nothing on earth stands complete, in and of itself. Instead, all things arise in relation to other things: "if this exists, that exists; if this ceases to exist, that also ceases to  exist".⁠5

That concept is beautifully expressed in the Buddhist metaphor “Indra’s Net,” first referenced in India over 3000 years ago.

There is an endless net of threads throughout the universe…

At every crossing of the threads there is an individual.

And every individual is a crystal bead.

And every crystal bead reflects

not only the light from every

other crystal in the net

but also every other reflection

throughout the entire universe.⁠6

The embodied mind thesis may sound like pure woo-woo, yet it may be a necessary paradigm change if we are to survive as a nation – and, perhaps, as a species.

Put into practice, it would upend our current worldview where we are pigeonholed as separate, independent actors, solely responsible for our own lives: forced to play the game of survival of the fittest, competing against our neighbors for scarce resources. Instead, by taking off our blinders, we can aspire to who we really are: Each of us, a precious jewel reflecting all our fellow beings, animate and inanimate, in earth's vast ecosystem.



1 Gregory Bateson. Steps To an Ecology of Mind (1972).






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