Taking this very string of words from the page and processing them together as a coherent whole, a thought, is remarkable feat of the mind. As you glance past each word they fade from your immediate view and yet you keep traces of them alive, in an instant combining them with prior knowledge to grasp the author’s meaning. Psychologists since James (1890) have attempted to model and understand this ability to build an active present, the bridge between our immediate past and the possibility of future action. This capacity to hold information in mind and to use it to guide our behavior is now at the heart of a foundational construct of cognitive psychology, working memory (Baddeley 2007). As philosophers incorporate scientifically vetted capacities to unravel longstanding questions and puzzles of the mind, working memory has begun to play a central explanatory role in new theories of “core” or “central” cognitive processes, including consciousness (Prinz 2012; Dehaene 2015), reasoning (Evans & Stanovich 2013), and reflection (Carruthers 2015). Drawing on my own background in neuroscience and philosophy of mind, my research—distilled in my dissertation, The Fragmented Mind—challenges both the nature of working memory as the stage of the mind and its role in explaining consciousness. In its stead, over the past year I have begun the positive project of reworking crucial components in the conceptual landscape of empirically informed philosophy of mind to generate a new theory of central cognitive processes, one that takes seriously our nature as social creatures and dissolves longstanding contradictions stemming from the flexibility of cognition.
But why focus on working memory? Philosophers and psychologists both have a shared commitment to the notion that there is a center—the source of deliberation and reasoning, the core of personal identity, and the control structure for volition—in the mind. In philosophy, appeals to cognitive unity as a key factor in human mental achievements stretches back from Kant’s description of the rational agent (Korsgaard 2009), to the Cartesian meditator (Carriero 2009), reaching to Aristotle’s account of the virtuous agent, or phronimos, who deliberates with the aid of phantasia, our innate ability to form and retain images from past experience (De Anima 431a16). Doris summarizes this sentiment well in his recent work on agency: many philosophers “want to find a there there—a person, rather than haphazard muddle of cognitive systems.” (2015, 3). Working memory, borne of “cognitive revolution” of the 1960s and 1970s, was conceived as a general system situated between perception and action whose task is to keep information in mind and to use that information in the service of our goals—for instance, solving the 20th century problem of holding a phone number in mind long enough to write it down (Aktinson & Shiffrin 1971; Baddeley 2007). As working memory became embedded in the landscape of psychology, its purview increased to where it is now responsible for, as Jonides and Nee (2006) put it, “such acclaimed human intellectual achievements as reasoning, language-processing, and problem solving,” and general “thinking” and “planning” (223; Funahashi 2006, 251).
My research inverts this narrative. Using the analytic tools of philosophy of science, I review empirical developments surrounding working memory and conclude that there is no single-purpose system that can carry out all the functions that psychologists and philosophers have assigned to the “center” of the mind; that is, there is no there there. Instead, working memory collects and describes a plethora of fragmented systems and paths that creatures can use to get from perception to action. Deflating working memory also greatly problematizes many first-order, naturalistic theories of consciousness. While this fragmented view of cognition does imperil theories of consciousness and reasoning that rely on working memory, it also the creates the necessary space for socially-embedded, less-individualistic, less-anthropocentric, and anti-ableist accounts of these central processes that are crucial for an adequate, social account of cognition.