Do we need props?

‘The main issue is whether gadgets and apps help us to run our lives or whether we allow ourselves to be ruled by them’

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The Shrink

Not so long ago I dismantled my inner self. Nothing too radical or spiritual occurred — it involved, rather, disposing of a big bundle of notes I had been accumulating for a few years (naturally, after going through them and transferring anything of interest to some other kind of file, real or virtual). On a more routine level, I entrust my memory to Post-it notes all the time and wonder how I would function without them. And I have just carefully placed a sticker on my phone to remind myself to hold my dodgy shoulder in the right way.

You might rely on more high-tech props: apps of one kind or another in which to confide your innermost thoughts, store to-do lists or remind yourself of appointments. If this is the case you may be concerned about becoming over-reliant on gadgets, as though this might undermine who you are in some subtle way.

There are “use it or lose it” worries that such props are bad for our brains. But unless we happen to be endowed with uncommon cognitive gifts, most of us will need something outside ourselves to store and remember things. After all, we have always outsourced parts of ourselves to diaries, journals, phone and address books. Technology has simply given us some more powerful tools, albeit ones with the occasional downside of crashing or running out of power.

Reliability issues aside, the new gadgets are probably more addictive than good old-fashioned diaries (the chances are, you wouldn’t find yourself obsessively consulting one of those) and that is why it’s good to keep an eye on whether we are becoming more dependent on them than is good for us.

The main issue is whether we put such tools to the time-honoured use of helping us to run our lives or whether we allow ourselves to be ruled by them, as when our perceived need to consult them gets in the way of life, or our social interactions are entirely shaped by technology. We should make sure we do what we want to do, not what our screens tell us to.

The Sage

A recent survey suggests that losing a phone is more stressful than losing a wallet or even a wedding ring. Many say it feels like losing a piece of their self, albeit with just a tinge of embarrassment at how dependent they have become on their technological appendages.

According to the philosophers David Chalmers and Andy Clark, the idea that phones are part of us is more than merely metaphorical. Their “extended mind” hypothesis proposes that the boundaries of the human mind might extend beyond the skull.

This is not nearly as crazy as it at first sounds. After all, our “minds” are not solid objects. You can’t say exactly how long they are or how much they weigh. To say we have minds is simply to say that we are able to think. How do we do this? Mainly with our brains but not entirely. Other parts of our bodies help too. We have many neurons in the gut, for example, and we use our fingers to help us count.

The extended mind thesis simply points to the fact that we also use things outside of our bodies in the same way. We don’t store all our memories in our brains: we put some in phone books, photo albums and diaries. We don’t just use fingers to count: we use calculators and abacuses. If we’re trying to think things through, we may physically as well as mentally list the pros and cons to help weigh them up.

Some find our increased reliance on such mental prosthetics troubling. Will a generation that can google everything, everywhere, grow up unable to remember anything? Any gains should outweigh the losses. Brain power is a finite resource and we don’t want to use it all up on data storage and retrieval. After all, savants who remember everything often understand very little. Being able to outsource some of the grunt work of cognition frees up our brains to do the interesting, creative processing of the information. The best way of keeping our minds engaged and active might well be to let them extend far outside our skulls.

The Shrink & The Sage live together in southwest England. To suggest a question, email shrinkandsage@shrinkandsage.com

Illustration by Laura Carlin

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