Extended Nervous System

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"At a fundamental level, physiological computing represents an extension of the human nervous system. This is nothing new. Our history is littered with tools and artifacts, from the plough to the internet, designed to extend the ‘reach’ of human senses capabilities. As our technology becomes more compact, we become increasingly reliant on tools to augment our cognitive capacity. This can be as trivial as using the address book on a mobile phone as a shortcut to “remembering” a friend’s number or having an electronic reminder of an imminent appointment. This kind of “scaffolded thinking” (Clark, 2004) represents a merger between a human limitation (long-term memory) and a technological solution, we’ve effectively subcontracted part of our internal cognitive store to an external silicon one. Andy Clark argues persuasively in his book that these human-machine mergers are perfectly natural consequence of human-technology co-evolution".[1]

If we are to extend the nervous system, I believe we must also extend our conception of the self – beyond the boundaries of the skull and the skin – in order to incorporate feedback from a computer system into our strategies for self-regulation.[2]

As N. Katherine Hayles puts it in her book on posthumanism: “When the body is integrated into a cybernetic circuit, modification of the circuit will necessarily modify consciousness as well. Connected to multiple feedback loops to the objects it designs, the mind is also an object of design.”[3]


The extended nervous system is a term used to describe the extension of perception and sensory feedback outside the physical body. For instance, one's perception changes when entering a vehicle by extending from the edges of the self to the edges of the vehicle. "The car [is thus an] extension of the foot instead of the car as a satellite part of the home: or the tendency for appliances to impose their presence as against the psychological need for 'cosy' or 'friendly' objects".[4]

The extended nervous system does not just relate to the extension of the physical self, but the extension of the mental self as well. One's nervous system extends to the characters in fictional works. In very well-written books, the reader can feel the triumphs and battles of the characters as if they were their own. This mental and physical engagement extends to those who engage in technological interaction as well.

Those who run host websites on servers are not running machines. Rather, they are maintaining a symbiotic organism of machine and person, stitched together by source code. Those who maintain web systems have extended nervous systems that encompass those servers. When a website goes down, one's physiology is affected. The heart-rate increases, adrenaline flows into the body, and the server administrator gains the required mindset to rush into triage and reinstate the system.

Social networks are a natural extension of the social and mental self. In a real world filled with geographic and social distances, it is natural that so many disconnected individuals would so quickly adopt a technology that allows them some semblance of former society, even though it is mediated by technology and a payment plan. Analytics platforms are sensing networks that act as extended nervous systems for web properties and devices. They detect clicks on the extension of one's identity or brand.

Related Reading

Cyborg Security


  1. 6th January 2010 The Extended Nervous System http://www.physiologicalcomputing.net/?p=291
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Paul Elek, Paul. Comments and Excerpts from Urban Structure. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., New York. 1968. Pg. 127.