The mind in the web (and other stories)

Does the mind end with the brain? Or should the term also encompass the body and the tools we use to aid our thinking?

The idea of the “extended mind” was first proposed by the philosophers Andy Clark and David Chalmers in the late 1990s. As part of their argument, they propose a thought experiment concerning a man called Otto, with early Alzheimer’s, who carries a notebook in which he records important information throughout the day, so there is really no observable difference between his behaviour and someone with a healthy memory. In Clark and Chalmers’ view, the tool has simply become part of his mind. You could say the same about many of our other mental crutches – like our phone book or Google Maps – that have become so embedded in our day-to-day thinking. The extended mind may even reach to other people – in couples, we often rely on our partners to reinforce our memories, which is why a bereavement can feel like we’ve lost part of our own mind,

While that might seem like a rather abstract philosophical idea, I recently came across an intriguing paper suggesting that spiders‘ webs are an extended mind – with some interesting implications for evolutionary theory. According to recent research, spider silk is central to their sensing and memory – much like Otto’s notebook or my smartphone. They use the silk to sense their environment and have been known to “tune” it according to experience, for instance, which allows them to respond more quickly to prey. By outsourcing their “thinking” in this way, they are capable of much more complicated behaviours than you would expect from a typical invertebrate. Combined with other research showing that spiders can form mental representation of the world, and are even capable of expressing surprise, it now looks likely that spiders (and their webs) carry a rudimentary form of consciousness. You can read more in my recent feature article for New Scientist.

(Here’s a bonus fact: many spider species use tiny strands of silk to sense electromagnetic fields. When the force is strong enough to support their weight, they cast a few “sails” that allow them to fly thousands of miles across the ocean. Darwin’s The Beagle was apparently plagued by these flying spiders.)

Besides my piece on spider consciousness, I’ve been pleased to publish another piece in the Observer (the Guardian’s Sunday paper) on simple ways to boost your learning. I found that most articles about human memory tend to focus on mnemonic techniques – like Sherlock’s famous memory palace. But while that might be useful for learning isolated facts, it doesn’t really help you to build a profound understanding of a subject, or to be able to apply that learning to new situations in inventive ways. So I picked strategies from the scientific literature that have been proven to help any discipline.

As always, I’ve tried them all out myself – I try to practice what I preach with psychological research, so I can be sure they don’t fall into the “practicality gap” between lab research and everyday application. Since I’m splitting my time between London and Barcelona this year, I’ve tried to use them to boost my understanding of español. The benefits of wakeful rest – allowing your mind to wander aimlessly after a study session – has been a revelation. Interleaving – the practice of switching between topics/skills at regular intervals – has also been especially useful. You can read the article about learning and the “power of productive failure” here.

Here’s a simple maths question – the answer to which might tell you something important about your decision making skills. If you toss a coin 10 times, and the result is HHHHHHHHHH, what are the chances that it will be a tails on a the next throw? According to probability theory, the odds are exactly the same as before – 50%. But our intuitions often tell us this isn’t the case; somehow, a tails feels more likely. This is the gambler’s fallacy.


Perhaps most famously, it led punters at one of Monte Carlo’s casinos to lose millions of francs after a string of reds on the roulette wheel – but the implications stretch far beyond your typical games of chance. As I discuss in my new piece for BBC Worklife – the gambler’s fallacy can also sway stock market investments, judicial decisions, umpires’ calls and footballers’ penalty shootouts. Indeed, whenever you have to make a string of decisions, your intuitions about chance could be leading your astray.


You can read more here.

What I’m reading: I’ve just finished Grand Union by Zadie Smith (which I loved) and I’m now starting Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. For work, I’m also delving into a review copy of Cured by Jeff Rediger.

PS: If you read Swedish, I had a lovely conversation with Maria Jelmini for the Svenska Dagbladet – one of Sweden’s largest daily newspapers. The interview is here.

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