Natural-Born Cyborgs: Can Technology Supersize Human Life?

Parenting in Today's Digital Playground

Words like “cyborg” and “supersizing” do not seem relevant to a discussion of Christian life; they seem to belong to some other domain of discourse. Consideration of the characteristics of people, however, does seem more relevant to how we understand Christian life. Nevertheless, terms like “cyborg” and “supersizing” are very much a part of the current discussions of the nature of the human mind, particularly in the work of philosopher Andy Clark. Over the past few years, we have been thinking about how the theory of extended cognition (promoted by Clark and others) is relevant to our understanding of Christian life, including its relevance to understanding the role of technology in Christian life and the life of the church.1

The Telecare Study

A great deal of research has demonstrated that chronically stressed individuals are at higher risk for depleted immune systems and physical illness. We know this not just from self-report measures, but also from studies of stress-related changes in the quantities of immune cells circulating in the blood. We also know that social support and self-disclosure of stress reduces the impact of chronic stress, helping sufferers experience both better physical health and improved psychological functioning. Finally, we know that caregivers of a chronically ill or disabled loved one are a highly stressed group and, due to the demands of caregiving, it is hard for them to get out of the house to receive the relational support they need. We know a lot—but what are we to do?

Some years ago, a group of students (including Brad Strawn) working with Warren Brown investigated a telephone-based (landlines at the time) method to intervene in the sorts of stress that can compromise immune function, which we called “Telecare.” Participants would receive a weekly call from the same individual with no particular agenda other than to ask, “How are you doing?” We developed a Conversational Symptom Assessment to track general psychosocial and physical well-being over the telephone without intruding on the supportive nature of the conversation. We trained individuals in ways to be supportive in the context of the telephone conversation. Our question was not whether social support and disclosure of stress helps individuals—we already knew it did—but rather, could this kind of support be offered via the technology of the telephone?

Turns out it could! This intervention worked to significantly lower stress and increase well-being in a number of at-risk groups: persons diagnosed as HIV positive, persons with rheumatoid arthritis, high-stressed families in a congregation, and caregiver shut-ins. In the caregiver group, we discovered during a baseline period (i.e., a period of time during which the caregivers were not receiving calls) that symptoms of distress were increasing. Soon after the telephone calls began, we saw a significant reduction in overall stress and an increase in reported well-being—both emotional and physical. In addition, caregivers highly valued the calls, were sad to see them end, and rated their callers as caring. There were other benefits too: caregivers were exhibiting greater self-care, reaching out more to existing social support groups, grieving the loss (or potential loss) of their loved one, and even dealing with feelings of anger. They were disclosing their thoughts and feelings to the callers in ways that they had not to anyone else. These were exciting findings particularly because it suggested that we might be able to use the telephone to positively impact individuals in need in an efficient and expedient way.

A surprising discovery of our Telecare experiences was how easy and natural it was for persons to be self-disclosing over the telephone. Very soon in the process of the calls, caregivers became comfortable talking about things that they might not talk about in a face-to-face conversation. Perhaps the absence of eye contact releases interpersonal inhibitions in talking about their distress and caregiving experiences. While this may have been the outcome of training our Telecare callers well, we believed it also had a lot to do with the medium of the telephone—a technological device through which vocal cues of compassion can be heard without the distraction and self-consciousness created by eye contact.

Telephone Conversations as an Extension of Mind

In the years since these studies were done, new developments in cognitive science and the philosophy of mind have helped us understand that humans are not creatures that are simply contained in a body and use external tools. Rather, we are creatures who are naturally wired to incorporate artifacts outside our physical bodies into our mental processes to enhance our mental capacities. This is why Andy Clark calls humans in the title of his 2003 book Natural-Born Cyborgs, since we seamlessly incorporate things (and other persons) into our interactive networks—which we then credit to ourselves as our own mental processing and intelligence.

The theory of extended cognition posits that human thinking is not limited to what happens in our solo brains or bodies, but involves interactions with things or other persons outside our bodies. We know what time it is because we have watches. We can calculate the solution to complex mathematical problems not because we can do it in our heads, but because we have paper and pencil (or computers). We can remember complicated schedules, to-do lists, and how to contact friends because we incorporate into our mental processes computers that we carry in our pockets or purses (i.e., our smartphones). And, just as amputees who wear prosthetics actually incorporate the prosthetic into the brain systems that map and control their bodies, so we all readily incorporate all sorts of human-created artifacts into our cognitive networks in ways that extend and enhance—supersize—our mental capacities.

Further, the sort of supersizing made possible by the incorporation of various artifacts and tools is even more powerful when we are joined in dialogue with another person. The interactively conjoined corporate cognitive network formed by the dialogue between two persons is so much more powerful than the minds of two persons functioning independently.

Our experience with Telecare described above illustrates the basic concepts of cognitive extension. Although the telephone is a powerful tool, in and of itself it does not supersize cognitive and interpersonal capacities. If there is no one on the other end of the line, the phone is inert with respect to extending mental processing. However, if there is someone to talk to, then the two persons in the conversation can become soft-coupled into a feedback network that serves to enhance cognitive processing with respect to whatever the topic of the conversation might be. Thus, a Telecare conversation supersizes the processes of coping with stress via engaging together with the caller within a shared network of reflections, emotions, and real-life problem-solving. However, one can imagine a telephone “conversation” in which each person talks, but without regard to anything said by the other. This would not result in a larger interactive network that might enhance mental processing.

It is important at this point to entertain a caveat. While interactive coupling with artifacts (e.g., a computer) or another individual (e.g., a telephone conversation) will supersize the mental processing involved, the content of the interactive supersizing may be either good, helpful, productive, moral, ethical—or not. For example, social extension afforded by street gangs can enhance problem-solving with respect to crime and violence. We must always ask, “Extension for what and to what end?” Cognitive extension is neither good nor bad in itself, but a ubiquitous human phenomenon to consider. The use of the phone for supportive calls to caregivers can, due to the supersizing available in social interactions, lead to amelioration of the health risks associated with intensive 24-7 caregiving, but most of us have also experienced how a telephone conversation can, for instance, exacerbate interpersonal or family stress.

In the end, there are two important properties of Telecare suggested by the theory of extended cognition: (1) the capacity to enhance mental and relational processes through the rich social interactions fostered by the telephone; and (2) the supportive nature and content of the interaction. In this manner, an important congregational mission can be supersized using the medium of a telephone.

Media and Extension of the Mind

We now live in a world where phones are not only ubiquitous, but also grant us unlimited access to many other forms of social media that foster widespread usage. What is to be said about these other forms of media from the perspective of extended cognition? Do they (and can they) extend and enhance the life of a church community in significant ways? We need to critically examine all forms of technology and social media with respect to their outcomes and best uses, rather than presuming that all communications enhance the community life of a congregation.

The Amish have an interesting relationship to technology. For example, they can use landline phones but eschew cell phones. Such decisions are based on a fascinating framework for thinking about whether or not to incorporate particular technology. When considering the incorporation of a new technology into their community, they ask a simple question: “Will this technology facilitate or impede community?”

Many churches and individuals in ministry are excited about the use of digital technologies and emerging media platforms, but perhaps, like the Amish, we need to be more discerning about the capacities and values of the different forms of media. The thinking that has surrounded the theory of extended cognition might give us some help. Based on our thinking about Telecare and extended cognition, we would ask two questions: (1) does the incorporation of a particular technology or media platform facilitate social extension and interaction in deep and significant ways; and (2) is the media being used in ways that are consistent with a Christian life and narrative?

First, with respect to the depth of interpersonal interactions and the possibility for the soft-coupling of individuals into shared life at least for the length of a conversation, certain forms of digital media are significantly limited. They typically restrict length of expressions (e.g., texts, tweets) or are not specifically interpersonal but broadcast unidirectionally to larger groups (e.g., Facebook). What interactive feedback is available is not immediate and often significantly delayed. The effort involved in typing messages also reduces robust interactivity. Most important, these media are severely limited in interpersonal bandwidth by eliminating tone and modulation of voice, and facial expressions that signal emotions—as media of social interaction they are deaf and blind.

Consider the social bandwidth differences in the following Sunday worship scenarios: Some churches encourage the congregation to text comments and questions during the teaching that congregants or the teacher can read, but in which there is no immediate interactive coupling between persons. Contrast that with a congregation of, say, 50 persons where the teacher asks questions or invites oral responses from the congregation; there is an opening for comment or other expressions from the congregation. In the latter case there is benefit of a medium (speaking out loud) that is not blind and deaf, and where speakers can be viewed and the interpersonal attunements of shared emotions experienced. There is momentary interactive soft-coupling between the speaker and the congregation. So, if we impose the criteria of the Amish—“does this facilitate community”—the latter case can be answered in the affirmative more readily than the former.

In the same vein, think about the difference between most social media and a telephone call. The phone is much more interactive. It creates social extension. While blind, it is not deaf. It allows for the sharing of emotion and fosters full expressions that are not cut short by the limits of the medium or the effort of typing (particularly the effort of typing on a smartphone). When we consider the communal life of the church, while social media might foster a morsel of cognitive extension, it is extremely thin and is best reserved for unidirectional information communication. In other words, digital technologies are only useful in building community when they foster robust person-to-person interactivity that is not blind and deaf. This creates the sorts of feedback and accountability that can foster community.

The second question about digital technologies has to do with what is communicated. For example, many churches have suffered significant damage to community life from congregants and ministers using social media in cruel and critical ways. Of course, the same can be said of some face-to-face interactions. However, there is a profound difference with respect to what one dares to say at the social distance and disengagement of texts, tweets, or Facebook posts. The physical (or immediate auditory) presence of the other individual in real time creates a level of awareness of the other that causes one (in most cases) to consider the immediate interpersonal and emotional impact and to moderate what is said. In fact, as we have argued above, two individuals involved in a telephone conversation can enter into a soft-coupled interaction where they become, for the moment, a single mental processing system where they are thinking and speaking as one.

First Corinthians 12:1–26 is an oft-overused passage whenever someone speaks of Christian community or church life. Despite its sometimes-glib use, from the lens of extended cognition, Paul’s metaphor of the church as the body perfectly describes what a church should be. In these verses we see how members of the body (physical or congregational) function best when intensely interconnected, but can easily become disconnected. Frequently the church today is not a true body of Christ, but rather a “loose association of independently spiritual persons.” To be the body is to become coupled into an extended life with one another, making use of the technologies available to us in a manner that fosters a congregation that is highly interconnected, and in ways that are deeply resonant with the narrative of the gospel. Such interactive extension can serve to supersize Christian life.

Describing a scientific study that used landline telephones now sounds quaint or even antiquated. Technology is advancing at a pace that we couldn’t have imagined when we first set out to aid caregivers. Nevertheless, old fashioned telephones worked because they allowed individuals to interactively soft-couple with caregivers through conversations that extended and supersized their capacity to cope. Such processes are possible because humans are natural-born cyborgs, effortlessly incorporating things and people into our interactive networks. Paul’s message to the church is as urgent as ever. While technologies offer us new and exciting opportunities to soft-couple with others in ways that extend our capacities, they don’t do the hard work for us. For that we need our bodies, the bodies of others, and ultimately the body of Christ.

W. S. Brown  and B. D. Strawn, The Physical Nature of Christian Life: Neuroscience, Psychology, and the Church (New York: Cambridge, 2012).
A. Clark, Natural-Born Cyborgs: Minds, Technologies, and the Future of Human Intelligence (New York: Oxford, 2003).
A. Clark, Supersizing the Mind: Embodiment, Action, and Cognitive Extension (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2011).
B. D. Strawn and W. S. Brown, Supersizing the Christian Life: How Religious Experience Extends Beyond the Person (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, forthcoming).
B. D. Strawn, S. Hester, and W. S. Brown, “Telecare: A Social Support Intervention for Family Caregivers of Dementia Victims,” Clinical Gerontologist 18, no. 3 (1998): 66–69.

  1. A preliminary version of our thoughts in the area of extended cognition can be found in our book The Physical Nature of Christian Life (Cambridge University Press), and in our forthcoming book, Supersizing Christian Life (Intervarsity Press).