Extended Emotion: Walking the Dog
Where would you say your emotions are located?
A year ago, I may have gestured to that rhythmic pounding in my left chest and the sometimes invisible but tense binder around it, the hot flashes in my lower face, or that mild warmth coming from the stomach when the mind finds its way back to its body. Today I would give a different answer. Today I think the answer does not lie within myself anymore. We tend to talk about emotions as purely internal processes, generating intrinsic and self-contained feelings. Just like the mind, we confine emotion to proper bounds, to boundaries by which we also limit our understanding of self. That sounds pretty esoteric. But I am talking science.
A small but growing group of cognitive researchers began to think differently about the mind in the 1980s. Their theory of mind is called distributed and extended cognition. When I first heard about his theory a few years ago, I admit to raising my eyebrow. It felt so counterintuitive to everything I learned about the mind from my philosophy background that it sounded a bit, well, “out of there.” However, I now think it does not only apply to cognition but also emotion. Perhaps even the development and maintenance of consciousness as a quality arising from interactive engagement with the world. Two things changed my mind: zoom teaching and walking the dog.
Distributed cognition says that the richness and complexity of our mental processes arise from using things in our environment as part of our mental mechanisms. For example, when you try to build a new habit, you often find yourself frustrated because it is so easy to fall back into old patterns. That’s because you have not changed your environment to support these habits and assist your mind in realizing them. For example, if you want to start the day by reading a few pages in a book instead of scrolling social media on your phone, make sure the book is the first thing you see, and reaching the phone would take extra effort (by placing it in a different room). Things like that. You’re basically reducing the cognitive load and freeing your mind to focus on these new or other activities. One of the people proposing the idea that the environment is part of mental capacities is Ed Hutchins. His book “Cognition in the Wild” changed my mind, and it certainly was way ahead of his time. Hutchins studied the social, cognitive, and technical environment of naval ships from a cognitive perspective (and inspired by David Marr’s computational theory of mind): the chain of command, the communicative structures, and so on. The complexity in cognitive strategies and architecture that allows military ships to navigate the water and pursue a mission is impossible to explain by referencing an individual’s mind as a self-contained thing. Moreover, this complexity is not simply an add-up of multiple individuals but emerges from the particular interactive procedures between people with various specializations and instruments of different technological affordances. This brings me back to emotion.
I adopted a dog last year and have been walking her day in and day out, bringing her wherever I can and also changing my habits as many places remain restricted to bringing dogs (you want to go for a drink? let’s meet outside). My emotional baseline has changed radically since. The dog is quite zen and incredibly attuned to my whereabouts. When some philosophers muse in their armchairs about whether animals are conscious, sentient, and whatnot, I cannot help but think their approach is somewhat idiotic. They often raise “the problem of other minds” (since I have not access to the minds of others, can I really know they have one?), which is a perversion of what the mind is if you think about this from the point of distributed cognition. Dogs are incredibly sensitive to the moods and behaviors of people. They show much more sophisticated responses to people’s behavior indicative of states of mind than many fellow humans, who seem increasingly incapable of recognizing the reality of other people existing in their own states of mind. (And social media has not helped this vortex of self-referential reality.)
My dog gets me out of “it,” meaning out of a state of mind that can sometimes trap the quality of my conscious experience of the world with its emotional baseline. A lot of things in our ridiculously bureaucratized daily life have become a massive source of unseen pressure and stress. The way life feels day in and day out cannot be separated from these structures in which we act. It is also impossible to escape them entirely. But it is possible to change how they shape your mind. Just like the book next to my bed, my dog has become the mental foreground, while that rude email by a disgruntled person (often in their own vortex of mental hell, humming with anxiety) becomes background noise and loses effect once it is closed.
My dog has become a stable part on my extended emotional relation with which I engage with the world. She is not an add-on to daily life but has become a part of who I am and whom you will meet. A friend recently noticed that. “That dog’s possibly the best thing ever happening to you.” She extended my mind and heart.