Yesterday I finished reading a book by Lambros Malafouris titled How things shape the mind and I dare to say it is the most important piece of writing I have read this year so far. I was aware that I may expect a high-quality thinking, however. Malafouris is an anthropologist by training, having received his PhD from Cambridge, the UK. Currently, he is based at Oxford where he is Johnson Research and Teaching Fellow in Creativity, Cognition and Material Culture at School of Archaeology. These impressive bios, I believe, are the least interesting thing about Malafouris; it is his work I consider the epicentre of a big paradigm shift that has been looming over us for good 30-50 years, depending on the method of choosing the most relevant works.
Started in the corners of cognitive science, philosophy of mind and later influenced another fields like anthropology or archaeology, the discussion of which Malafouris has become a core member is about the increasing plausibility that things around us are not mere passive instruments but important parts of human cognitive processes and mental states. Such idea goes against the predominant view where all technologies, media, or even prehistoric flints and cave drawings of the Chauvet Cave are dumb and inactive lumps of matter that wait for human masters to be utilized in an everyday activity. On the contrary, says Malafouris, all material culture shapes our minds, our biology and under specific conditions can be regarded as necessary parts of extended human mental processes. With his book Malafouris joins the ranks of ascending legions of philosophers, theorists and empirical-minded scientists who argue that human mind does not equal our biological brains and can be extended outside the bounds of skin and skull. In fact, one of the head proponents of this “extended” or “distributed” mind theory, Andy Clark, says that to regard mind as a priori inside the human skull is nothing but a biological chauvinism. This rhetoric is designed to provoke. It seems only natural to believe that whatever the human mind, it can certainly be located somewhere inside the human skull. Why would we think otherwise? That is the question that extended mind theorists have been writing about since proximately 1995 and amassed a great deal of arguments to put the common sense notion of mind, cognition, agency or intentionality to test.
Not that these notions are not already complex and contested to begin with. We barely got out of the blank-slatism, as Steven Pinker would call it, when the majority of experts and laymen thought that the human mind is a tabula rasa container, completely empty at the birth and awaits to be filled with all the intellectual and emotional goodies the life can offer. Then came Noam Chomsky, George Miller, Herbert Simon, Allan Newell, Marvin Minsky and all the godfathers of Cognitive Science and compelled the behaviourism that even didn’t acknowledge the existence of the mind and blank-slatists to kick the proverbial bucket. The whole “cognitive revolution” of 1960s was based on the opposing idea where our mind is in fact full of inbuilt mechanisms and structures determined, or at least heavily influenced by our genes and biology. For example, if the blank slate theory were correct and we really didn’t posses any inbuilt features and all we are were based on our experiences and what comes to our mind from the outside, we would have very impoverish minds, indeed! Most kids do not have scholarly parents who would talk to them incessantly. In fact, most kids are not taught the grammar at all. Blank-slatism cannot explain how children understand words and sentences they have never heard before. No, the capacity for language grows in children’s head as if it were another organ, or hand or digestive system. Inside their heads, humans have minds and we can study what they consist of. That is the insight of cognitive revolution and the field of Cognitive science.
It took us a heroic effort to put a mind inside the head. Now we want to take it outside again. Malafouris and others do agree that the human mind is inside the head, but only partially: the mind is a “leaky” organ that runs into the wild of the environment and employs other, non-biological scaffolding for its functioning.
The book is a bit dense and it demands to have knowledge of concepts from various fields. Even thought I have read quite a lot on the topic, I still realized that it would be necessary to write down in-depth notes for each chapter to really get a grasp of what Malafouris is arguing for. And here lies the reason why I am writing this article. If you are interested in the book itself, I am planning to write a proper review of the book, hoping to get it published in an academic journal. Meanwhile, I would like to share my story not about the contents of the book, but about how I read the book and what I noticed in terms of my reading habits.
We read different books differently. One genre of books we read for pleasure, plot twists and aesthetic, almost religious quality of being in touch a genius mind on the other side of the pen. In such case, we would talk about poetry, good novels or masterly written biography of a person we have strong feelings towards. On the other side of the spectrum are dense, academic tomes that require attention, memory-span and effort to absorb all the information, argument structures and logical conclusions. I would not say Malafouris’ How things shape the mind was badly written, it was demanding.
That is why I jotted down notes whenever I felt this or that piece of data or information was important. Because it happened all the time, I spent a considerable amount of time making notes. Moreover, my system of taking notes increases the complexity further.
I confess that my mind and memory primarily work visually. I have no problem to remember a scene from Woody Allen movie I saw several years ago. Casually I can even remember the face, the atmosphere, and the contents dialogue. I found out that I also remember well logical rules and abstract relations among abstract objects that I visualize inside my mind’s eye. But when it comes to memorizing text, I never was a person who could quote back the text verbatim after one reading. And I had a privilege to be in a room with people like that. Therefore I had to develop a system of memorizing text that would translate the linear, linguistic signs into abstract, possibly visual relations I have a good knack for, if I ever wanted to be in a position to study philosophy on a post-graduate level.
One way I found useful is to write down notes, categorize them according to whatever rule that looks logical to me and after that memorize the most important concepts, words, arguments etc. Having done so, I use the custom made (hand-made?) categories, selected words, lines of argumentations as “triggers” or doors to those parts of the memory where the other information about the text are stored, but are less likely to come up easily on their own.
In the past, I used mostly paper for notes. But recently I have started using Microsoft OneNote as my primary note-taking tool where I basically developed the copy of the system I used previously with paper.
For example, I created a special OneNote “notebook” called “Reading”. Here I keep all my notes for most of the books I considered important to learn and study in-depth. This notebook Reading is further subdivided into grouped sections with headings depicting an academic field: Cognitive science, Media Theory, Evolutionary Biology etc. The grouped sections then consist of individual sections with the name of the authors. OneNote offers added ways to be hierarchy. So as you can see in the picture, each author is further subdivided into notes related to particular books. Only then will we see the notes for a book. All of this is what OneNote offers out of the shelf, without any need to set up anything. The interesting question is how to structure the notes for the book themselves.
Here I take advantage of the flexibility of OneNote where you can write blocks of texts next to each other, which is something Google Docs does not offer at the time of writing this article. Why would you need to have two blocks of text next to each other? Well, for one it takes less of vertical space, so that you do not need to scroll down that much if you need to find anything. Secondly, you can take advantage of the additional visual horizontal dimension to read, compare and analyse texts simultaneously next to each other.
But the most important reason why I use two separate blocks of text is this: The second block of the text on the right is divided according to the real sections that the book is divided by and I write down notes related to the sections of the book according how the book text naturally flows from top to down. Whereas the first block of the text on the left provides me with the space where I can develop my custom categorizations of concepts, ideas, themes, arguments etc., which is something I would normally do on paper.
This system is extremely well-suited for a situation where you need to remind yourself after some time what the book was about, what were the most important bits and especially, if you are a teacher and need to refresh yourself the book for next day’s class.
With a twist of irony, however, the more elaborate notes I take, the less confident I was in being able to cite and talk about the book. How could that be? The most obvious answer is that if I spend so much time making elaborate notes that the effort will use up the energy I would have left for the actual reading. This explanation is very likely, although I believe there is more to the question. Another possible explanation why note-making lessens your ability to remember what you read comes from the academic literature that researches the negative effects of using Google on memory.
The research on Google’s effects on human memory is numerous. One of the arguments can be summarized as follows: the more you use Google, the less you use your memory to store the actual content; rather by using Google you use your memory for storing where to find the content. In other words, Google trains your brain to remember “where” instead of “what”. What it suggests for my situation is that note-taking process can change my brain processes and focus its energy on remembering where in my notes I find what I am looking for, instead of focusing brain energy on the real content, i.e. text. However, there is another research that I find ever more persuasive.
Researchers separated two groups of people into two different laboratories. The first group was asked to read a text and memorize it. The second group was asked the exact same thing. After reading the text, the groups were tested on how well they could remember information from the text. However, only the first group was told by researchers that they would be allowed to use Google for the second part of the research where the groups would be asked questions based on the contents of the book. What did the research find?
The research claims that the first group, which was allowed to use Google, scored significantly worse than the second group. What does that mean? As the researchers believe whenever we know that we do not need to memorize things because there will be a means to get to the information if needed, we tend not to use our memory and cognitive processes responsible for memorizing fully.
That sounds plausible. What I would like to find out is whether this happens consciously or also unconsciously. In other words, do people consciously say to themselves: “I do not need to remember it because I could use Google if necessary”? Or, is it possible that what started at the beginning as a conscious decision not to focus and memorize that much, sooner or later started to creep into our minds as an unconscious decision and our brain acted accordingly?
We know that our brains are much more plastic that we thought. When I return to the book by Malafouris, he himself says that “meta-plasticity” is a defining feature of human brain/mind and therefore our brains are constantly re-wired based on what we do, what we experience, and – yes, what kind of tools and technologies we use.
There is another crazy research that I talked about last year during my teaching at Charles University. It has to do with the idea whether smartphones like iPhones distract us that much that we can see it on the cognitive tests that test our ability to concentrate and engage in demanding problem-solving. No one is surprise if I say that the research showed that a switch-on iPhone lying on your desk significantly worsen the subject ability to solve difficult problems. But what you may find more surprising is that the similar negative effect was seen not only if the iPhone was switched-off, but also if the iPhone was both switched-off and hidden in your bag placed next to the table. Only if the subject put the smartphone to next room, did the subject improve on the test. Lastly, the positive effect of putting the smartphone far away from yourself was the largest for subjects that were labelled as psychologically addicted to smartphones. By using your iPhones constantly, you will train and rewire your plastic brains to constantly think about your smartphones, even if you do not see them directly, and, which is more importantly, even if you do not consciously think that you are thinking about your smartphone. To me, that is scary.
If I go back to my own situation, I believe a thorough note-taking activity does harm to my memory in a similar way that Google and iPhones do to the subjects in the above research: you systematically train you brain not to do hard work of memorizing and paying attention if you rely heavily on Google, if you mindlessly use your technology such as smartphones, or perhaps if you rely on your notes in a good faith that it is a responsible thing to do.
Speaking again of the book by Malafouris, around the middle of the book I decided to stop making those notes with OneNote and instead read the chapters only with a pen and paper in front of me. Moreover, I switched to reading the book in a tablet mode of my laptop, with all apps switched off and wifi disconnected from the internet.
What happened? Believe it or not, I immediately get a sense that I remember much more. I could also read the book much faster which gave me a slightly narcissistic pleasure that I am a fast reader. But wasn’t it a placebo effect that I expected to improve my reading habits by going back to good old pen and paper? Maybe, a placebo effect always creeps around the corner and you have to take it into account. However, it does not mean that the effect is not real. We tend to dismiss the placebo effect as “not real”, which is nonsense. The reason why the placebo effect is a big deal is because it does have effect and we cannot attribute it to anything else than meeting the expectation of the researched subject.
If we agree with the meta-plasticity of our brains, does it not make sense that our thoughts, feelings and even expectations rewire our brains so that our brain is as much attuned to the desired outcomes as possible?
Malafouris ends his book with a hinted prediction that in the 21st century, the neuroscience and psychological research in meta-plasticity of the brain will be one of the most pressing and important projects that we can undergo to understand what it means to be a human.
The saying “Be careful what you wish for” may be closer to the neuroscientific truth than we expected.