Bulleting “The Organized Mind”—Externalizing Mind

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Welcome back to my multi-part blog series wherein I will briefly discuss bullet points taken from Daniel Levitin’s 2014 book entitled The Organized Mind—Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload. In this installment we will look at Levitin’s take on externalizing the mind. Levitin suggests that one effective way of organizing the mind is to put some aspects of mind out into the environment. To make his point Levitin uses the example of pill holders. Let’s listen in:

By now, most of us have seen little plastic pill holders with the names of the days of the week written on them, or the times of the day, or both. You load up your pills in the proper compartment, and then you don’t have to remember anything at all except that an empty compartment confirms you took your dose. Such pillboxes aren’t foolproof … but they reduce errors by unloading mundane, repetitive information from the frontal lobes into the external environment.

This idea of externalizing the mind or putting mind out into the environment is nothing new. One of the best books that I know of on the subject is Cognition in the Wild by Edwin Hutchins (1996). Hutchins spends considerable time looking at the development of maps, especially maps used for nautical navigation. Hutchins argues that studying the development of maps as cognitive tools is a good way to track the development of the externalized mind. Both Levitin and Hutchins make the following points concerning externalized minds: 1) externalized mind often takes the form of cultural artifacts (language would be a good example here), 2) cultural artifacts allow for time to be transcended (e.g., different generations of mind have access to the same cultural artifacts), and, 3) externalized forms of mind tend to create collectivized states of mind. To illustrate the first two points, alphabets, once developed, persist largely unchanged (a point that James Gleich makes in his 2012 book entitled The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood [1]). On the last point, we use externalized forms of mind to organize the minds of individuals. As a trivial example, I enjoy the fact that the vast majority of drivers understand the meaning of a red stop light and act accordingly by, well, stopping. All of the above has led some sociologists to argue that in order to change an individual mind, one must change the collective externalized mind. In many ways behaviorists agree with this perspective. Behaviorists argue that it is exceedingly hard to change individual minds, ergo, change the collective mind mainly through policy change. This argument is made in the 1996 edited volume entitled Finding Solutions to Social Problems—Behavioral Strategies for Change (M Mattaini & B. Thayer, eds.).

So, you may be asking what any of this has to do with Bowlbian attachment theory? Well, one very productive extension of Bowlbian attachment theory has been in the area of affect regulation. Allan Schore is the chief animator behind the study of affect regulation. [2] Schore effectively argues that the infant “uses” (not consciously mind you) the mother’s ability to regulate emotion to in turn regulate his or her own emotion. During this process of emotional co-regulation, states of mind are passed back and forth. In this way the infant’s mind comes to be organized. Affect regulation is the infant’s first experience of the externalized mind (externalized body too). Following physical or biological birth there comes a period of psychological birth. This is not a new idea. For more on this theme, see the psychodynamically oriented 1975 book entitled The Psychological Birth of the Human Infant: Symbiosis and Individuation by M. Mahler, F. Pine, & A. Bergman.

So, let me end by stirring the political pot. Where you place mind says a lot about who you are politically. If you believe that mind exists largely within the individual, chances are good that you are motivated by conservative models with their focus on self determination (YOYO—you’re own your own). If you believe that mind exists largely in the environment, it’s a safe bet that you are motivated by liberal models with their focus on social determination (WIIT—we’re in it together). I’m pulling this from cognitive scientist turned political commentator George Lakoff’s 1996 book entitled Moral Politics : How Liberals and Conservatives Think. Lakoff argues that we are guided by certain cultural cognitive models: liberals by so-called Nurturant Models; conservatives by Strict Models. Cultural cognitive models are a form of externalized mind. Now, there’s a bug-a-boo concerning conservative models: even though conservative models hold that mind is largely within the individual, the model itself is held collectively. One only has to look at the current presidential election scene to see this in operation. Liberals believe one way (say, for abortion and gun control), conservatives another (say, against abortion and gun control). But both political groups are being guided by a cultural cognitive model, by externalized mind (again, liberals by the Nurturant Model; conservatives by the Strict Model). I would suggest that one key reason presidential hopeful Donald Trump is so popular among conservatives is because he embodies what Lakoff calls the Strict Father archetype. As Jung suggested, archetypes are a form of externalized mind.

Now, I’d be remiss if I did not mention one book in particular: Changing Visions—Human Cognitive Maps: Past, Present, and Future by Laszlo, E., Artigiani, R., Combs, A. & Csányi, V. (1996). The Changing Visions authors describe the development of cultural cognitive maps through time starting with ancient Rome and Greece. They suggest that when a particular cultural cognitive model holds sway over a group of people, there is relative calm. During such periods, collectivized minds are at peace. But as the Changing Visions authors make clear, when cultural cognitive models begin to break down (as is the case today), much unrest ensues. During these periods of unrest, two typical patterns emerge: 1) a desire to return to older models, and, 2) a desire to embrace fantastical models. ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) would be an example of the former; postmodernism and New Ageism would be examples of the latter. Here in the US, the 1970s marked a period of relatively calm and stable cultural cognitive models. Today we live in a period of changing and shifting cultural cognitive models as the continuing rise of the digital age and information overload make clear.

The BLT blog will be on hiatus for the holidays and will return in the New Year. Here’s wishing everyone a happy and joyous holiday season!


[1] Levitin references Gleich’s book, which is how I found it.

[2] Our Foundation has supported Dr. Schore’s work in the past. He also recently spoke in Santa Fe at The Psychology of Boys at Risk: Indicators from 0–5 conference (November 5–6, 2015).