Thoughts About Cognitive Ecology


Where is the Mind?

One the first day of Distributed Cognition, COGS 102a at UCSD, Professor Johnson hands out a piece of paper for every pair of students in a 400 person auditorium. On the back of the sheet is a maze, which cannot be solved until the class has heard her instructions.

We all turn to our right or left and team up with our neighbor, as per the instructions. One person in the team is allowed to put a pen to the start of the maze. However, this person must have his or her eyes closed thereafter. The other person is allowed to see the maze and communicate instructions to the effector team member, but cannot physically intervene in any way.

The time begins, every team flips their paper, and over the next three minutes the class is full voices commanding "Up -- right! No, too far!" and the like.

At the end of the exercise, Professor Johnson proposes a question: Where is the mind that got through the maze?

The class thinks this over for a minute before a few students raise their hands.

"It had to have been the students providing instructions," one student argues, "For they perceived the maze, understood it, and planned a navigation strategy."

Another student counters: "No, the mind belongs with the students who had a pen to the maze. They had to interpret and embody the instructions they received."

After a little more discussion, the class waits for a definitive answer from Professor Johnson.

She explained, "The mind that got through the maze is a system that includes both people, the pen, and the maze."

And with this moment, my perspective about the nature of consciousness forever changed.