Robert Logan on the Extended Mind

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Prof. Robert Logan, the author of The Extended Mind: The Emergence of Language, the Human Mind and Culture, got in touch with me, offering to provide a synopsis of his book. I thought it was well worth putting up, even if frequent readers of this blog will recognize from the things I’ve written — well, not lately — that I disagree with Prof. Logan on a couple of things (like the fact that I think Chomsky’s idea of innate grammar doesn’t help us to deal with culture). I find Prof. Logan’s way of talking about language and culture really intriguing and productive. He is in the Physics Department at the University of Toronto (his university homepage is here), but his writing ranges over a wide variety of topics. This posting is really his contribution (except for this part in the block quote box).

Logan started using the phrase ‘extended mind’ independent of Andy Clark and Andy Chalmers (for more on the concept, here’s Wikipedia’s discussion of ‘extended mind’). If you’re interested in his book, it was published in 2007 from the University of Toronto Press (here’s a preview on Google Books, the book’s listing at U of Toronto Press, and Amazon).

By Robert Logan

The origin and evolution of human language is one of the great mysteries confronting contemporary scholarship and science. I became interested in this problem because of my work in media ecology in which I studied the evolution of notated language, namely, writing, mathematics, science, computing and the Internet. In a book entitled The Sixth Language (2004 Blackburn) I showed that speech, writing, mathematics, science, computing and the Internet form an evolutionary chain of six languages. The thesis that was develop was that a new form of language emerged as a bifurcation from an older form of language each time an information overload was created that the older form of language could not handle.

That study in which it is posited that the notated forms of language emerged from speech led naturally to the question of how speech, the first form of verbal language, emerged. So I must confess that I virtually stumbled into the origin of language field as a result of my earlier research with notated language within the context of media ecology, a field of study pioneered by Marshall McLuhan with whom I collaborated.

My goal in the book was threefold. First, I presented the model I developed, the Extended Mind model, to explain the emergence of language. Secondly, I supplemented my simple model with other models that I felt were consistent with my approach. In achieving the second goal I reviewed the extensive literature that had emerged in the past 15 years critiquing it from the perspective of my approach. I believe that the Extended Mind model sheds some light on a number of controversies raging in evolution of language field. Finally my third goal was to use the insights in my work and that of others to draw parallels between language and culture and develop the notion of Universal Culture, which is to culture what Chomsky’s Universal Grammar is to language.


I divided my book into five parts.

In Part I of the book, I formulated the objectives of my study and provided the reader with a history of the study of the origin and evolution of language as well as the history of my entry into this field.

In Part II, I reviewed my earlier work in the evolution of notated language (Chapter 2), in which language is shown to be both a communication medium and an informatics tool and develop the Extended Mind model to explain the origin of verbal language (Chapters 3 & 4).

The origins of speech and the human mind are shown to have emerged simultaneously as the bifurcation from percepts to concepts and a response to the chaos associated with the information overload that resulted from the increased complexity of hominid life. As our ancestors developed tool making, controlled fire, lived in larger social groups and engaged in large-scale co-ordinated hunting their brains could no longer cope with the richness of life solely on the basis of its perceptual sensorium and as a result a new level of order emerged in the form of conceptualization and speech. Speech arose simultaneously as a way to control information and as a medium for communication. Rather than regarding speech as vocalized thought one may just as well regard thought as silent speech.

The mechanism that allowed the transition from percept to concept was the emergence of speech. The words of spoken language are the actual medium or mechanism by which concepts are expressed or represented. Each word served as a metaphor and strange attractor uniting all of the pre-existing percepts associated with that word in terms of a single word and, hence, a single concept. All of one’s experiences and perceptions of water, the water we drink, bathe with, cook with, swim in, that falls as rain, that melts from snow, were all captured with a single word, water, which also represents the simple concept of water. Spoken language and abstract conceptual thinking emerged simultaneously as the bifurcation from non-verbal communication skills and the concrete percept-based thinking of pre-lingual hominids.

The transition from percept-based thinking to concept-based thinking represented a major discontinuity in human thought and entailed three major stages or breakthroughs in hominid cognition:
1. Manual praxic articulation (or tool making and use),
2. Social organization (or the language of social interaction), and
3. Preverbal communication, which entails the use of hand signals, mime, gesture and prosodic vocalization.

It was shown that these cognitive breakthroughs represent three distinct percept-based preverbal forms of protolanguage. They were the cognitive laboratory in which the skills of generativity, representation and communication developed and, hence, were the source of the cognitive framework for speech.

I used my dynamic systems model of the mind to understand the connections between technology, commerce, artistic expression, narrative and science and to generate what I playfully called the Grand Unification Theory of Human Thought. The three percept-based preverbal forms of languages represent more than just the transition to spoken language and abstract conceptual thought. Transformed by spoken language and the abstract thought that followed in its wake, they also served as the prototypes of three fundamental activities of modern humans, namely technology which emerged from tool making, commerce which emerged from social organization and the arts which emerged from mimetic communications. In this way we link these activities to those associated with the verbal languages of speech, writing, math, science and computing. Language is the link, which united all the activities of human enterprise.

A model to address the mind body problem was developed in which it is assumed that the mind came into being with the advent of verbal language and, hence, conceptual thought. Language is a tool which extended the brain and made it more effective thus creating the human mind.

In Part III, I first critiqued Chomsky notion of the hard wiring of the Universal Grammar and the Language Acquisition Device (Chapter 5). I then reviewed the evolution of language literature within the framework of Tinbergen’s Four Why’s identifying the contentious issues in the field and suggesting ways in which the Extended Mind model might resolve some of these conflicts (Chapters 6-9) thereby identifying those models which I believe are compatible with my own approach.

In Part IV, a synthesis of the Extended Mind model is made with a number of other compatible approaches (Chapters 10 & 11). Although the Extended Mind model is limited in its scope and does not account for all aspects of spoken language it does complement a number of other models that more fully describe the emergence and evolution of language. I also show how the Extended Mind model supports some of these models and to show how Christiansen’s model of language as an organism and Deacon’s notion that humans are the symbolic species support and complement the Extended Mind model. The synthesis that emerges from this analysis, I believe, provides a feasible model or narrative for the way in which human language with all its complexities and many functions may have emerged.

In Part V, I explored the relationship of language and culture and the parallels that can be drawn between these two phenomena. In Chapter 12 I focused on the co-evolution of language and culture. In Chapter 13 the role of altruism in the emergence of language was explored. In particular the work of Michael Tomasello in The New Psychology of Language (2003 Erlbaum) on the joint attention of young children and their parents contributed to the origin of language. By extending Christiansen’s notion that language may be treated or represented as an organism to culture, I showed in Chapter 14 that culture, like language, should have universal features and therefore propose the existence of Universal Culture as an analog to Universal Grammar. A survey of the literature on culture was made to support this hypothesis and in particular Donald Brown’s book Human Universals (1991 MacGraw Hill) listed over 100 items that are universal aspects of all human cultures.

2 thoughts on “Robert Logan on the Extended Mind

  1. I want to thank Greg Downey for his invitation to provide a synopsis of my book. I hope to hear from readers of this blog their reaction to my ideas. Feel free to contact me directly also if you wish at logan@physics.utoronto.ca. I am also working on a project to understand the nature of information entitled simply: What is Information? Information has many different meanings depending on the context in which it is used and Shannon’s deinition of information is only one of many possibilities. The connection to neuroanthropology is that the original meaning of information according to the OE dictionary was a training of the mind, a meaning used by Chaucer. I am hoping this plug for my latest project will generate some leads. I am happy to have discovered this most fascinating blog and look forward to exploring its prodigious depths.

  2. It has been my particular question of late as to whether the developments in neuroscience indicate that alphabetic writing and literacy can be defined as a unique cognitive event, one that shows a particular brain pattern that reinforces abstraction and abstract thought. An alternative would be that neuroscience and brain patterns show that pictographic writing and literacy do not reinforce abstraction and abstract thought.

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