Fruitful Loops

From “The Extended Mind,” by Andy Clark & David Chalmers:

“[I]t may be that the biological brain has in fact evolved and matured in ways which factor in the reliable presence of a manipulable external environment. It certainly seems that evolution has favored on-board capacities which are especially geared to parasitizing the local environment so as to reduce memory load, and even to transform the nature of the computational problems themselves. Our visual systems have evolved to rely on their environment in various ways: they exploit contingent facts about the structure of natural scenes, for example, and they take advantage of the computational shortcuts afforded by bodily motion and locomotion. Perhaps there are other cases where evolution has found it advantageous to exploit the possibility of the environment being in the cognitive loop. If so, then external coupling is part of the truly basic package of cognitive resources that we bring to bear on the world.

Language may be an example. Language appears to be a central means by which cognitive processes are extended into the world. Think of a group of people brainstorming around a table, or a philosopher who thinks best by writing, developing her ideas as she goes. It may be that language evolved, in part, to enable such extensions of our cognitive resources within actively coupled systems.”


Writing holds a train of thought for us so we can follow it along much greater distances than we do while thinking only in our heads, or in most cases, thinking while speaking. The record of thought on the written page is used in a cognitive loop, cycling back through the mind that created it, keeping it on track, on topic. For a mind prone to scattering in fragments and chasing tangents, writing may be the only way we can think beyond the reactive, short-length chatter that characterizes our natural inner state. There is a much greater possibility of thinking for ourselves with the aid of the page – its attentive obedience doesn’t distract, sway, or obscure, but holds up our developing thought as is, waiting for us to continue, patiently but insistently asking, “and then?

When we bounce around only at the level of our shallow thought trajectories – when we don’t write – our thinking tends to knot itself up in the small lengths of track we give to it. Knots turn into thought-loops, loops tighten the knots. We loop back through the short spans of familiar patterns – maybe it’s an insecurity about our body, or our agitation about the particular way someone ticks us off, or a sense of anxiety about not living up to our potential. These loops play again and again without moving forward.

Writing can help us pull these knots apart, stretch them out on the page, and see their defects and futilities clearly from end to end. Using the larger cognitive loops made possible with a notebook – or a good conversationalist – we can unravel our old autopilot snarls and construct new paths for better thoughts to travel.

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