Fully Paralyzed Man Communicates Using Brain Implant and Computer

"extended mind hypothesis" posited in 1998 demands revisiting

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

The “extended mind hypothesis” just got more dizzying. A man suffering from ALS who is fully paralyzed has used brain implants to communicate in complete sentences via a computer software program. Do brain implants make computers part of the brain?

Photo by dani3315
Will first-ever brain implant become a common assistive device for communication for ALS patients? Photo by dani3315

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, more commonly known by the abbreviation ALS, is a progressive nervous system disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord, causing loss of muscle control. During a recent medical experiment, an ALS patient had two microchips implanted into his brain in order to facilitate communication to others, via a software program installed on his computer.

The unnamed patient is completely paralyzed. However, with the help of scientists, he first learned how to use the communication system by learning to control the amount of his brain activity, which was read by the computer software. He increased his activity to indicate “yes” and decreased it for “no.” Then, the software program recited individual letters to him in sequence. When he indicated “yes” with his increased brain activity, the computer would select the letter and begin again. Although the process of communicating through the use of a computer is slow, it is a revolutionary tool for individuals who have been diagnosed with ALS.

This incredible breakthrough also raises fascinating philosophical questions about the so-called “extended mind hypothesis,” which asks where the “mind” truly begins and ends. In his video series Theories of Knowledge: How to Think about What We Know, Dr. Joseph H. Shieber, Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Lafayette College, details the idea.

If It Walks like a Duck…

Andy Clark and David Chalmers published a paper, called “The Extended Mind,” in the philosophical journal Analysis, giving the hypothesis its name. To give an example of the idea they presented, Dr. Shieber turned to long division. While he often does basic math in his head, as we all do—such as calculating a tip or figuring out when to leave the house to catch a movie—a lot of math isn’t feasible for the average person without using at least a pen and paper.

“Suppose I asked you to divide 53,735 by 29,” he said. “In a case like that, using the environment in the form of a pencil and paper as an aid to calculation isn’t just optional; it’s necessary, if you’re going to solve the problem—certainly necessary if you’re going to solve the problem in a reliably accurate way.”

Clark and Chalmers refer to these sorts of actions as “epistemic actions.” Epistemic actions alter the world to aid certain cognitive processes. Furthermore, the thinking brain itself and the “altered environment”—in this case, the paper with the mathematical notes on it—form a “coupled system,” or a two-way system in which all components of the system play active causal roles.

These components, they said, also jointly govern behavior in the same way that cognition does. To quote a statement they made in their published paper, “If we remove the external component the system’s behavioral competence will drop, just as it would if we removed part of its brain.”

“By appeal to the dual notions of epistemic actions and coupled systems, Clark and Chalmers define their position as ‘active externalism,'” Dr. Shieber said. “By this term, they mean that when we are engaged in epistemic actions, we (at least, sometimes) count as coupled systems with external entities that are genuinely cognitive.”

This is where externalizing the mind comes in. According to Dr. Shieber, Clark and Chalmers argue for the extended mind by way of analogy. Basically, we end up in a closed, two-way system with a pen and paper helping us to do long division: Our brains do all the work but are aided by seeing the numbers on paper and solving the problem in bite-sized pieces. Therefore, everything on the paper is simply an extension of our thoughts and minds.

To them, this is proven in that if someone takes the paper away in the middle of us solving the problem, we can no longer solve it, much in the same way we could no longer solve it if a tiny piece of our brain were removed. The paper and its written work become an extension of the mind.

“They try to present a case in which a process that extends outside of the brain has all of the marks of a cognitive process, and then argue that we should, therefore, recognize that case as a genuinely cognitive process.”

Maybe that’s the reason why it feels like a computer freezing for a moment when our train of thought derails temporarily.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily