What were you doing the afternoon of 15 January 2014? Chances are, unless it was highly meaningful, you probably do not remember. Memories are made and recalled because of their emotional valence. On 15 January 2014, I was serving as a visiting professor at the Indian Institute of Technology Gandhinagar (IITGN). It was the final day of the annual kite flying festival of the city of Ahmedabad, the temporary home of IITGN. That afternoon, I had returned to the campus, and there was a beautiful sky collage of kites in a myriad of colours: India’s flag (green, white, and saffron), chrome, all of the primaries and pastels. It was a mildly warm day, and I had previously flown a few kites (Miami, Florida) in my time, so I sought the shade of a plumeria tree (frangipani, we called it in Miami) while watching the campus crowd. College students, faculty, staff, and many children were all joyfully flying kites. The colourful flock of kites swirled above us in the air. Some higher and some lower: some kites dangling close to the trees and some so high they could barely be perceived. But I did not enjoy the shade of the plumeria alone: the wife of a senior administrator of IITGN also sought refuge in the shade. I watched as the crowd, as equally colourful as the kites, blended and danced amongst each other, flying their kites. As we watched the kites and their participants, an older august Indian gentleman left the fray to join his wife, standing with me under the plumeria tree. ‘Did you see,’ he said excitedly to his wife, ‘I had the highest kite in the sky!’
Later, as I drove my Indian bicycle home from the campus, the two, way too short, kilometres, again I was faced with kite flyers of all ages: some on rooftops, most were children in the streets. Some in rare vacant fields among the five to seven storey apartment buildings. Again, I pondered: what it this ubiquitous joy that comes from flying kites? Why the deep smiles from children, engineering students, faculty and their director? An answer came quickly: embodied cognition! People, of all ages, were ‘flying’ through their kites and kite strings! They could literally sense the air currents through their fingers. They could feel the upper trajectories of their kites in the wind, as well as the unfavourable winds and downdrafts upon their kites. It may as well have been their own bodies that were flying freely in the afternoon sky!
So what is embodied cognition? As we learn from Oxford University Professor Lambros Malafouris’ recent book How Things Shape the Mind: A Theory of Material Engagement, it is the psychological condition where the mind escapes the confines and physiological limits of our 1350 cc brains. In the words of University of Edinburgh philosopher Andy Clark (1997), the mind ‘is a leaky organ, forever escaping its “natural” confines and mingling shamelessly with body and with world’ (p. 53).
Malafouris draws upon anthropologist Gregory Bateson’s (1973) observations of a blind man and his stick. Bateson pondered the issue of where the blind man’s self-perceptions began: at the tip of the stick, its handle, or someplace in the middle? Malafouris, along with others, has observed that the blind person’s stick is not a boundary between the blind person’s mind and environment. The stick is a pathway to the environment. The mind has adopted the stick as part of the brain and its body. The tip of the stick has extended the blind person’s mind to the very end of the stick, all the while he or she is able to sense the presence or absence of an object and the object’s environmental context. Just as if one’s mind was not only an extension of one’s brain, but also one’s mind is able to adopt environmental agents (‘scaffolds’ in Malafouris’ terms) and bend them to the intents and purposes of one’s ‘leaky’ brain.
From an archaeological perspective, Malafouris suggests that the blind person’s stick could be replaced with a plethora of artefacts and innovations throughout prehistoric culture, and thus, minds have been scaffolding and interacting with materials and the processes associated with them for thousands of millennia. Malafouris proposes that this coalition of cognition and material culture ends up being a highly critical driving force in the evolution of human cognition. Malafouris suggests that this coalition is a ‘gray zone of material engagement’ (Malafouris, 2013, p. 5), a place where ‘brains, bodies, and things conflate, mutually catalyzing and constituting one another’ (Malafouris, 2004).
I also made a pilgrimage to Freud’s home and private practice in Vienna (19 Berggasse Street) last fall. I was pleased to relearn that Freud called himself a ‘collector.’ His home and office contained many pictures of his vast collection of antiquities, particularly Egyptian artefacts such as a bronze head of Osiris, and statues of Imhotep, Amon-Re, Ptah, and Isis being suckled. Freud also collected ancient Syrian artefacts, Greek vases, and statues of Buddha and Hindu gods. I was in part pleased because I too am a collector but also because one observation of Malafouris particularly moved me and helped me make sense of my fondness for collecting:
Here, Malafouris delineates another important and often neglected aspect of material engagement, and that is affective engagement. He has concerns with humans typified as merely problem-solving machines, using material culture simply to transfer and store information for one’s mind and brain. Malafouris highlights the problem in forgetting the sensual, affective, and emotional characteristics of humans’ exercise of their intelligence. Malafouris notes that problem-solving, making sense of one’s environment, and understanding the salience of one’s environment requires emotion and affect as much as traditional cognitive processes. Indeed, only a few decades ago, executive functions of the prefrontal cortex (e.g. organization, planning, strategy formation, decision-making) were thought to be strictly cognitive in nature. However, as many cognitive neuroscientists have shown, some frontal lobe-damaged patients could pass neuropsychological tests of frontal lobe function in the laboratory but they could not go out and buy a loaf of bread. The latter, of course, requires making decisions in a social context and to some extent, emotionally interacting with others. Now, a scientific consensus has been reached that social and emotional decision-making relies on a different neural substrate than classic laboratory measures of executive functions. The former are attributed to the orbitofrontal prefrontal cortex and the latter to the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. Thus, it appears that decision-making and sense-making require the prefrontal cortices but that these cortices are differentially called upon depending on whether there are affective and social meanings embedded within a task. Indeed, this is true even when one is attempting to understand the thoughts of others or whether one is trying to understand the feelings of others (Gupta et al., 2012).
‘Things are made to be seen, exchanged, deposited, owned, valued, priced, manipulated, feared, fetishized, revered, ridiculed, and so on. The sensual properties of things and the aesthetic experience of things permeate every aspect of our cognitive activities and permeate our social and emotional relationships’ (Malafouris, 2013, p. 87).
Even in death and loss, material objects may have played a powerful role throughout human prehistory. Malafouris and others (Miller, 2008) propose that objects can help us remember loved ones, either through an accumulation of objects (e.g. a small altar of remembrance with pictures and artefacts of a loved one) or by a divestment of objects associated with a person or loved one. Although Malafouris does not cite it, one of the oldest and most powerfully dramatic burials occurred in Sunghir, Russia about 30 000 years ago. A young boy and girl, and adult male were buried nearby each other with an impressive number and variety of grave goods: over 13 000 decorative beads, ivory ornamental discs, and ivory spears which had been tapered to the boy’s and girl’s heights. This interment of impressive grave goods obviously meant something beyond even simple remembrance. Small soft ivory spears, not fire-hardened, would have been highly ineffective in any environment resembling our own but they might have been highly effective in an after-life not at all like ours. The people who buried these children with such time-consuming, ‘expensive’ grave goods were clearly thinking beyond simple remembrances. It may be the earliest and clearest example of autonoetic thinking (Tulving, 2002; Coolidge and Wynn, 2008), the idea that one realizes that there is a subjectivism to our sense of time and that our recall of the past and our simulations of the future are relative and can be travelled along freely. Here, the mind not only escapes the bonds of the brain, its body, and the environment but now it leaks into the unknowable and transcends even inexorable time into the exorable. Malafouris calls this form of consciousness ‘chronesthesia’, which literally means ‘time sense’ or ‘perception of time.’
Malafouris stresses this enactive cognitive engagement through an example of early writing, the Mycenaean Linear B script. What the scripts recorded about 3500 years ago, tax and accounting records, is almost ‘immaterial’ for Malafouris. That the scribes used numerals and signs for quantity is important to Malafouris as these things could not simply be memorized. Malafouris is also intrigued by the process of Mycenaean thinking reflected in the tablets. For example, there are two types of tablets: smaller, leaf-shaped ones, and larger page-shaped ones. Malafouris notes that something written on wet clay dries quickly. Thus, the smaller tablets recorded only parts of the larger tablets. The smaller tablets were written first, and then used to re-record that information onto a larger tablet. The smaller tablets could record information as it was obtained at different times. They could then be filed in the order of their reception, and when a file was deemed complete, that information could be inscribed onto the larger tablet, in a specified order and all at once. The material spatial arrangement of the larger file has been produced through a physical manipulation of the representational medium (wet clay). Thus, Malafouris sees the larger file as not ‘simply amplifying the problem-solving process by reducing the complexity of the cognitive task … [but the] file … is also transforming the physical boundaries of the problem’s space, and thereby restructuring the problem-solving process’ (p. 72). In this example of distributed cognition, the tablets are not a passive backdrop upon which the activity unfolds. To Malafouris, the process itself can be interpreted as a cognitive archaeological artefact, at least or more worthy than the mere contents of the tablets. And it becomes a bit disconcerting if not disappointing that the earliest writings are a palace accountant’s tax records and not dreams, grand ideas, or beyond. At least Malafouris manages to extract a fascinating measure of Mycenaean thinking well beyond simple (and highly mundane) accounting records through an aspect of his material engagement theory.
Malafouris also proposes that human cognitive processes constitute a ‘hylonoetic field’, which might literally mean the ‘perception of matter’. However, for Malafouris, we know it represents a ‘mindscape quite literally extending into the extra-organismic environment and material culture’. It ‘is not simply the view … of a cognitive agent that depends heavily upon external props and tools …’. He finds the chief innovation of his book ‘… the more radical idea that human cognitive and emotional states or processes literally comprise elements in their surrounding material environment’ (all quotes p. 227).
And finally, Malafouris answers the question of what might be gained in archaeology and anthropology by adopting the perspective of his material engagement theory and his extended mind hypothesis. He proposes that it ‘is nothing less’ than a complete reconfiguration of the intellectual landscape of cognitive archaeology and any attempts at constructing an archaeology of the mind. Even sophisticated brain imaging techniques, Malafouris reminds us, are not to be considered the delimitation of essential cognitive processes. We are mistaken, he argues, to think ‘we have a brain’ and varying colours on a monitor might be synonymous with a brain’s thinking processes or no less a picture of the mind in action! As psychologist Fritz Perls (1969) long ago claimed, we do not have a brain, and we are more than just a brain. As Malafouris has so wonderfully explicated throughout his book, ‘The mind is more than a brain’ (p. 227), and I am now forever transfixed upon the much grander meaning of kites and the people who fly them.