Cinema, the Extended Mind and Beyond

In The Extended Mind thesis, Andy Clark and David Chalmers draw attention to the idea that the mind isn’t ‘(all) in the head’ and that it also extends outside of the body (1998: p.2). Chalmers and Clark argue ‘beliefs can be constituted partly by features of the environment, when those features play the right sort of role in driving cognitive processes...the mind extends into the world’ (1998: p.5). The Extended Mind thesis is made up of three interrelated points: the extended cognition, active externalism and the extended selves. They display these points in various examples from the rotation of shapes in the video game Tetris to their thought experiment of Otto’s notebook and Inga’s memory. The end of the thesis seems to raise the question of do we believe in an external or internal way of thinking? Favouring the thesis I would argue that cinema is another way of external thinking while achieving qualities of internal thinking. Using Clark and Chalmers’ The Extended Mind, I will explore ways in which their thesis is present in Memento (Nolan, US, 2000), Inception (Nolan, US, 2010) and to an extent The Dark Knight (Nolan, US, 2008) and showcase what Robert Sinnerbrink calls a ‘Romantic Film-Philosophy’ relationship (Sinnerbrink 2011: p.26).

The Extended Mind

The Extended Mind talks about how thinking takes place outside the head through the use of ‘tools’ and the way we process information through cognitive processes. Chalmers and Clark refer to the works of David Kirsh and Paul Maglio to explain epistemic action and how it aids cognitive process. As the thesis sates, ‘a part of the world functions as a process which, were it done in the head, we would have no hesitation in recognizing as part of the cognitive process, then that part of the world is (so we claim) part of the cognitive processes’ (1998: p.2). This implies that cognitive thinking can take place outside of the body just as the mind can. This is the grounding point to their thesis and is brilliantly explored as mentioned by the memory experiment between Inga and Otto (1998: p.5). Two people whom have the same goal: to got to the Museum of Modern Art. Inga uses her memory to remember that the Museum is located on 53rd street. Where as because of his Alzheimer’s disease, Otto carries a notebook and writes new information down every time. Otto consults with his memory which is written in his notebook and it reads that the museum is on 53rd street. Although questions occur such as: What if someone was to tamper with Otto’s notebook? Should Inga really trust her belief? (1998: p.7). If we were to compare the two methods of memory, the notebook is more vulnerable to loss than memory as it is internally with you always. The point is that whether we are using our minds externally or internally there is always going to be concern of reliability but as the experiment shows we learn that Otto’s notebook plays the same reliable role as memory does for Inga.

Cinema as an Extended Mind

Most recently David Chalmers has updated the thesis on the extended mind and explores how technology has become an extension of our mind and an extension of our selves (2011: N/A). In his presentation Chalmers uses the iphone as his primary example of what he calls an ‘extended perception’. Since its existence in 1895, cinema has always been an extended perception and an extended mind. Though Chalmers and Clark never refer to cinema, there is clear link to their thesis with the way cinema works. As Daniel Frampton states ‘cinema allows us to re-see reality, expanding our perceptions, and showing us a new reality. Film challenges our view of reality, forcing a phenomenological realisation about how reality is perceived by our minds’ (2006: p.3). Cinema as a whole has its own way of thinking. It delivers a variety of emotions that we the audience engage with. We grasp ideas and thoughts which become part of our mind for however long we want them to. The extended perception and the extended mind are clearly embodied in the works of Christopher Nolan. His films deal with similar themes and ideas about thoughts being manipulated through misdirection – very much like cinema. Misdirection’s which are caused by the way objects are presented as extensions of characters minds and how they play within their environments. Therefore I will showcase ways in which cinema is an extended mind through the selected films of Christopher Nolan both internally and externally.

“Facts not memories” – Leonard’s System

Memento is a neo-noir film that tells the story of a former insurance claims investigator Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce), who suffers from short-term memory loss, specifically anterograde amnesia. He uses notes, Polaroid photographs and tattoos to hunt for the man he thinks raped and killed his wife. The films narrative is told in non chronological order. So we start the film with the end of the narrative and we end with the start of it. Memento’s editing is thus making the connection of Leonard’s mind with the language of film editing and thereby making the audiences become investigators and explore the figments of Leonards mind. Christopher Nolan states ‘film noir characters who have either memory loss or distorted perceptions for some reason...make immediately apparent to the audiences that they cannot perceive objective reality around them that’s true of all human beings, we are all imprisoned by our own subjective perceptions of the world and storytelling is one way in which we understand a different point of view on what we consider objective reality’ (2010). Audience’s are therefore being put through a memory test and use what Frampton calls a ‘filmind’ to unscramble the film to work out a chronological order that constructs the puzzle that unfortunately Leonard can never solve. Frampton notes a filmind has a mind of its own, ‘the filmind and the film-world are one and the same: the same film-world does not organise itself independently of the filmind...filmind is conscious of external events because it is designed by real people, with real desires and motives’ (2006: p.76). Once Leonard’s mind is unscrambled, the film reveals the typical characteristics of a film noir. For example the character of Natalie (Carrie- Anne Moss) starts off being a trusting character but later performs the characteristics of a classic femme fetale. These genre iconographies help the audiences ‘filmind’ as they are culturally aware of the characteristics the film is playing with due to popular use in other earlier film noirs such as Double Indemnity (Wilder, US, 1944). In relevance to Clark and Chalmers’ analogy of the fish and how it ‘swims by building...externally occurring processes into the very heart of its locomotion routines...the fish and surrounding vortices together constitute a unified and remarkably efficient swimming machine’ (1998: p.5). We do the same with thought and in this case with Memento’s film editing. The editing is an altered film world that challenges our filmind to alter our way of thinking to thus making us feel subconsciously closer to Leonard.

Throughout Memento, Leonard completely disregards memories as a source of aid. He calls them ‘unreliable’ and says they can be ‘distorted’. Instead Leonard relies on a system in which he only trusts his own handwriting. Using various notes, Polaroid photographs and ‘freaky’ tattoos - all of these ‘tools’ are coupled together to create Leonard’s system of what he calls ‘facts’. This is very relevant to Clark and Chalmers’ say on ‘a coupled system’. As they note ‘all the components in the system play an active casual role, and they jointly govern behaviour in the same sort of way that cognition usually does’ (1998: p.2). At first the film makes us believe that the system works perfectly fine. But as we refer back to the memory experiment of Otto and Inga, we can clearly see the pros and cons of reliability in Leonards ‘tools’. For example the scene in which Leonard realises the hotel manager Burt is charging him two hotel rooms. Leonard automatically recognises his own handwriting on a sheet of paper thereby making the connection that at one point in time he was in that hotel room. But as the film shows there are problems with this system. As Kim Sterelny, who argues against the extended mind states ‘perception operates in an environment of active sabotage by other agents...often delivers that are...unreliable’ (2010: p.59). One example of sabotage is through the Polaroid photographs of Leonard’s ‘friends’ and how on the back of them there is a specific detail he has written about them. Leonard trusts his handwriting so much that he’s willing to believe in anything he’s written down. So for Teddy (Joe Pantoliano) – ‘don’t believe his lies’ obviously Leonard is not going to believe in anything Teddy says. Although as we learn in the film what Teddy has to say is important because he is the only person who understands Leonard for who he really is and is in fact his only friend. Of course Leonard can’t help this because of his condition, but Leonard himself says that being a former claims investigator, he is able to see if anyone was lying or telling the truth through their body language and eye contact. Plus it doesn’t help that Leonard doesn’t know who to trust since the people around him are constantly lying and performing identities in order to tamper with his mind thereby making him change his notes and perception of things. In other words – the system has become his extended perception and his Polaroid’s are a series’ of extended realities.

Joseph Levine states ‘memory provides a different kind of support for our beliefs about the world, without which genuine knowledge (except of the most trivial kind concerning current experience) is not possible’ (2009: p.47). In relation to Memento, memory is explored as a way of understanding an extension of ourselves and others. Clark and Chalmers state ‘most reliable coupling takes place within the brain, but there can easily be reliable coupling with the environment as well...the resources of my calculator or my Filofax are always there when I need them, then they are coupled with me as reliably as we need’ (1998: p.4). However Leonard does use his memories through his tattoos and particular objects that aid him to remember despite his dislike for them. Some tattoos like ‘photograph: house, car, friend, foe’ are external lists to help guide Leonard through everyday situations. Internally the tattoo of ‘Remember Sammy Jankis’ a character whom he met before his accident who had anterograde amnesia, this is someone Leonard refers back to in order to understand his condition. Unfortunately Leonard’s mind is so scrambled that he intertwines his own past with Sammy Jankis’ story and by doing so Leonard slowly loses sight of who he is. In short – the permanent notes of tattoos therefore ‘contaminate’ Leonard’s body and in doing so make Leonard plant an ‘idea’ into his own head by distorting his memories.

E. J Lowe claims ‘minds are objects of a certain kind, somehow related – perhaps casually, perhaps by identity – to other objects, such as bodies or brains’ (2000: p.1). Memento highlights this link between memories and objects as a form of identity in the scene where Leonard performs his own memory test. In the scene Leonard hires an escort to reconstruct and perform the last memory he has before his accident: the attack of his wife in the bathroom. He takes a selection of his wife’s objects and asks the escort to hold them and place them round the room as if they were her own things. When Leonard wakes up in the middle of the night, he immediately starts getting flashbacks of that night. In fact Leonard starts calling out to his wife because he believes in the reality he is in due to the placement of the objects. It’s only when he opens the door to the bathroom and sees the escort that he realises what his true reality is.

The scene that follows is rather complex. Leonard goes to a deserted area and decides to burn the objects that belonged to his wife. This can be read as two things. One, Leonard sees the identity and memories of his deceased wife through her personal belongings and burns them to forget those memories because they are so painful. The second assumption could be that perhaps he feels bad of the fact that he ‘infected’ his wife’s personal objects as he told the escort to treat them as though they were hers. Whatever the reason Leonard is burning figments of his mind specifically the memories of his wife which are presented through her personal objects.

Two-Face: One Coin – Two Minds

Another example to Lowe’s ‘minds are objects’ is the character of Harvey Dent. As one of the two arch enemies in The Dark Knight, Harvey (Aaron Eckhart) is significant to The Extended Mind thesis in the reliance of his two headed coin which can be best described as his portable cognitive process. As the district attorney, Harvey starts off as Gotham City’s ‘white knight’ but after half of his face is burnt off and scarred, he quickly turns into what he hated the most – the villain. Harvey’s psychological problems are further extended outside of the body by his father's 'lucky' two headed coin. In relevance to Robert Muehlmann who refers to George Berkeley ‘objects can be divided into two classes: “proper objects”, which are the immediate objects of sense...and “common objects”, which are formed by minds’ (2011: p.80). This is highlighted through the coin as it suggests the idea that his reality is based on ‘chance’. Before the accident Harvey believed in justice and that he could change the people of Gotham City. But after his accident, Harvey states ‘the world is cruel, and the only morality in a cruel world is chance (to which he raises the coin to his face)...unbiased, unprejudiced, fair’. With this point of view in mind, Harvey is unable to make choices on his own so he relies on his coin to make the decisions for him, such as whether someone should live or die. A situation can be raised here: what if Harvey were to lose his coin? Could Harvey simply grab another coin and flip that one? The answer is simple; Harvey wouldn’t make the decision at all. He can’t make one without ‘his’ coin. It has become so personal to his identity and his mind(s) that anything that looked or felt like the original coin wouldn’t be the same. In reference back to Chalmers and Clark, Harvey can be observed as an extended system ‘a coupling of biological and external resources’ (1998: p.9). This is emphasised through his memory of him giving the coin to Rachel before his accident. When he awakes in the hospital bed, he picks up the coin and notices that one half of the coin is burnt – hereby acknowledging that his fiancée is dead. As a result the coin not only becomes an extension of his duel personas but a way of remembering Rachel’s death. This figurative mark left on his coin is applicable to Leonards tattoos.

Totem’s – ‘Creating and Perceiving’ – Reality Check

Inception is a science-fiction action film that explores themes of dreams and extended realities. The film follows dreams extractor Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) who steals ideas from inside people’s subconscious mind. His skills have made him popular but also a fugitive. Saito (Ken Watanabe) hires Cobb and his team to do one last job: to implant an idea into the mind rather than stealing it – ‘Inception’. The film absolutely illustrates Clark and Chalmers’ thesis on the extended mind. Although the film talks about dreams within dreams, Inception can be seen as disguising itself as being a self reflective film about cinema. Or to put it in a Clark and Chalmers way: it’s an extended mind within an extended mind. As Devin Farci states ‘the film is a metaphor for the way that Nolan as a director works, and what he’s ultimately saying is that the catharsis found in a dream is as real as the catharsis found in a movie is as real as the catharsis found in life’ (2010: N/A). At first glance Inception seems complicated, but when we use our ‘filmind’ we experience a series’ of ideas which relate to our perceptions of reality in dreams or as Farci shows in relation cinema. Farci’s point is highlighted through the characters in the film. For example the character of Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphey) the ‘subject’ is relatable to the audience. The audiences are subjects that get ideas implanted into subconscious mind when experiencing realities in cinema. In reference to Levine who claims the mind is like a computer and that the architectural approach is ‘information that is stored in a designated location and represented in the appropriate form. Memory is precisely that store of information’ (2009: p.58). This is where the character of the ‘architect’ Ariadne becomes important. She creates the architectural structure of the subject’s subconscious mind. Cinema creates its own architectural approach through imagination. As Gregory Currie notes ‘Imagination enables us to respond to the world not merely as it actually is and with the beliefs and desires we actually have, but as it might be, will be or was, and to experience it as we would with beliefs and desires other than our own’ (1995: p.162). Therefore Inception can be realised as a film that thinks both internally and externally through its play with aesthetics. The audience consequently explore through these aesthetics and ‘extract’ the idea(s) that the represented reality wants to present.

When we refer back to Otto’s notebook, Clark and Chalmers mention that the notebook is ‘a central part of his identity as a cognitive agent’ (1998: p.9). As well as greatly explained through Harvey Dent’s coin, the idea of objects being ‘cognitive agents’ is perfectly demonstrated again in Inception through the use of ‘totems’. Totems are small objects that are unique to yourself and are something you have to carry at all times. For example as Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) explains his totem. Only he knows ‘the balance and weight’ of his totem that way he knows ‘beyond a doubt he’s not in someone else’s dream’. As Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen state ‘experiments provide a “reality check” that helps us avoid one of the great pitfalls of the human psyche’ (1997: p.35). In other words - anyone who enters the dream state has to carry a totem, which is an extension of their mind so they can test whether or not they are back in their own reality. Dom’s totem however is problematic because he uses the same totem that his deceased wife Mal used which means he is constantly reminded of her and what he did. Dom knew that Inception was possible because he broke into Mal’s safe and implanted an idea by tampering her totem. The idea he implanted on her totem ‘infected’ her mind and made her lose sight of reality. Nolan attempts to create the same effect with audiences when we see the totem in the closing stages of the film spinning. This is an ‘internal’ reality check for the audience. We may not realise this but we have our own reality checks when we experience a reality within cinema. This reality check happens when we see the credits roll and the lights fade up. We realise from that point what we watched was an illusion. But that illusion became attached to us for so long that even when we leave the reality, we go away feeling different then we started gazing.

Experience as an Extension

To conclude, Clark and Chalmers’ thesis on The Extended Mind is problematic because it doesn’t seem to know what kind thinking to favour. Cinema however shows a balancing argument between internal and external thinking as explored through Memento and Inception. The Dark Knight plays with its fantasy elements of its characters and shows a relation between objects and psychology. Cinema has become a universal, reliable medium that it would be hard not to consider it as being an extension of our minds. Audiences understand external aesthetics in films from editing to cinematography as part of a ‘coupling system’ which they use in order to extract ideas using their internal ‘filminds’. As Frampton states ‘the filmgoer uses real-world thought-processes to understand the film; the filmgoer is there to make sense of the film; and interpretation should rely on commonsense conclusions about the drama’ (2006: p.150). With what has been explored through Memento, Inception and The Dark Knight, the films share the same qualities of the importance of objects and how they are extensions of the characters mind. If cinema is a way of perceiving an extended mind; does this mean that the ideas it creates ‘infect’ our minds? Memento seems to support this idea through its favouring of internal memory and Inception definitely tries to highlight this idea with the use of external objects entering an internal reality. Rather than infecting our minds, I argue cinema delivers us knowledge. When we watch a film we become smarter and understand the language in which it presents to us. Importantly what we can we say about cinema is that it’s less vulnerable to lose because cinema is going to be around forever.


Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder US 1944)

Memento (Christopher Nolan US 2000)

The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan US 2008)

Inception (Christopher Nolan US 2010)


Currie, Gregory (ed) ‘Imagination, the general theory’ in Image and Mind: Film, Philosophy and Cognitive Science (Cambridge University Press: 1995) p.141-162

Stewart, Ian & Cohen, Jack (eds) Figments of Reality: The Evolution of the Curious Mind (Cambridge University Press: UK, 1997) p.9-35

Clark, Andy & Chalmers, David J. (eds) ‘The Extended Mind’ in Analysis 58 (1998) p.1-10

Lowe, E. J (ed) An Introduction to the Philosophy of Mind (Cambridge University Press: UK, 2000) p.1

Frampton, Daniel (ed) Filmosophy (Wallflower Press: London & New York, 2006) p.3-161

Levine, Joseph ‘Leonard’s System: Why Doesn’t it Work?’ in Kania, Andrew (ed) Memento (Routledge: London & New York, 2009) p,45-62

Clark, Andy ‘Memento’s Revenge: The Extended Mind, Extended’ in Menary, Richard (ed) The Extended Mind (Massachusetts Institute of Technology: US, 2010) p.43-65

‘Dreams: Cinema of the Subconscious’ in Inception (Christopher Nolan US 2010 2 Disc Special Edition)

Lehrer, Jonah ‘The Neuroscience of Inception’ (26th July 2010)

Lucas, Marsha ‘Video: TEDxSydney – David Chalmers – The Extended Mind’ (26th June 2011) chalmers-the-extended-mind/

Dunham, Jeremy, Grant, Ian Hamilton & Watson, Sean (eds) Idealism: The History of a Philosophy (Acumen: Durham, 2011) p.4-84

Sinnerbrink, Robert ‘Re-enfranchising Film: Towards a Romantic Film- Philosophy’ in Carel, Havi & Tuck, Greg (eds) New Takes in Film-Philosophy (Palgrave Macmillan: UK, 2011) p.25-48

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