Externalization means to put something outside of its original borders, especially to put a human function outside of the human body. The opposite of externalization is internalization.

In a concrete sense, by taking notes, we can externalize the function of memory which normally belongs in the brain.

In a more abstract sense, by inventing excuses, we can externalize the guilt associated with our actions.

In Freudian psychology, externalization is an unconscious defense mechanism, where an individual "projects" his own internal characteristics onto the outside world, particularly onto other people. For example, a patient who is overly argumentative might instead perceive others as argumentative and himself as blameless.

Like other defense mechanisms, externalization is a protection against anxiety and is, therefore, part of a normal, healthily-functioning mind. However, if taken to excess it can lead to the development of a neurosis.


The concept of "externalized cognition" stands for the phenomenological manifestation of "communicative signs, behavior or material artifacts" (Kuchka 2001:60), and it includes the entire spectrum of human arts and actions and even emotions at a more latent and subconscious level or explicitly. It is at the core of the modern anthropological pursuit, an emergent property of human activity in this planet, past and present. We are within it and depend on it to communicate and organize. It is composed of incredibly complex textual, visual, auditory, sensual, tactile, olfactory, mental and spiritual informational substances and it is tremendously variable in form and substance; involving the existence of direct continuities and breaks between traditions overtime and also possible broader relations and similarities, cross-culturally and throughout history and back into prehistory and what are strictly archaeological and paleoanthropological types of information sets. A cognition can be externalized and captured by archaeologists with such unusual techniques as 'palynology': The differences in frequencies of domestic versus wild pollens overtime can be extracted using cores in ancient silt deposits under the bottoms of lakes, reflecting relatively accurately the degree of human occupation in the particular area in question.

The process of “externalization of cognition” brings to the world and to the scrutiny of human reason “aspects of thinking” that facilitate “multidimensional manipulation[s]” in the organizational sphere of human phenomena, including most strikingly “special speech genres” (Gumperz and Levinson 1991:614) e.g., politics, propaganda, journalism, theatrical performances, lectures, etc. The process for the recognition of different externalizations is gradual and is absolutely interactive, involving inevitably some kind of mental action on the part of the being phenomenally involved with the externalization, a relation that, for humans, demands the direct choice of certain interpretive or hermeneutic devices to the exclusion of others in a very complex chain of cybernetic connections. Thus it is conceivable that “there is a very special kind domain of discursive practice and externalized cognition that lies in some sense between the inner life of the mind and the outer world of objects and behavior, partaking of both”(Gumperz and Levinson 1991:614). It is through the systematic analysis and comparison of systems of externalized cognition that anthropologists “celebrate cultural difference”, sometimes even admitedly exaggerating it to provide some kind of “antidote to tendencies in cognitive science, where culture and often language are treated as invisible, not as mediators between the mind and the world” (Gumperz and Levinson 1991:622).

The concept of externalized cognition could be also understood as directly connected and somehow controlled by 'intelligence' which can be defined as “the faculty of relating one point of space to another, one material object to another, [which] applies to all things, but remains outside them” (Bergson 1998[1911]:175). This 'intelligence', however, is also analogous to the cybernetic idea of 'mind' as “an aggregate of interacting parts or components”, and these parts and interactions are “triggered by difference [...], a nonsubstantial phenomenon not located in space or time” (Bateson 2002[1978]:85). The constant interactive flow of between these differences have effects in mental processes that “are to be regarded as transforms (i.e., coded versions) of events which preceded them” (Bateson 2002[1978]:86).

It must logically follow that any kind of externalized cognition can be contextualized and interpreted, however indefinetly and variably, as being systemically connected to larger sets of environmental relationships with other beings and objects. The laptop I am using to write this text could not have been pieced together without the informational collaboration of several sets of knowledge in differential relationships, organized and directed by humans for its current purpose. This computer also represents technological and intellectual traditions stretching and spreading back in time; humans have become able to select, gather and filter the right set of information and knowledge in such a way that the externalization envisioned and produced is a laptop computer – a conductor and retainer of contextualizable information. The same could be said of any of our productions or expressions – one of the main differences between our products being how and for what purpose they are being conceived, designed, produced and shared.


Bateson, Gregory 2002[1978] Mind and Nature. Cresskill: Hampton Press Inc.

Bergson, Henri 1998[1911] Creative Evolution. Arthur Mitchell, trans. NY: Dover.

Kuchka, H.E 2001 Method for Theory: A Prelude to Human Ecosystems. In Journal of Ecological Anthropology Vol.5 2001. <http://guallart.dac.uga.edu>

Gumperz, John J., and Stephen C. Levinson 1991 Rethinking Linguistic Relativity. In Current Anthropology, Vol.32, No.5 (Dec., 1991), 613-623.



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