Students from Professor Robin Zebrowski’s Cyborg Brains and Human Minds class (IDST292) stopped by the Logan last Monday for a look at some objects related to the idea of “extended cognition.” We discussed how the chosen objects aided or altered their users’ thought processes. It was possibly the most eclectic group of objects we have ever pulled for a class visit. We looked at mid-20th century Indonesian wayang kulit shadow puppets, khipu record keeping devices from 15th century Peru, jewelry scavenged from the 1890 Wounded Knee massacre site, and a mouse oracle from West Africa.
A mouse oracle is a device used in divination among the Baule people of Ivory Coast. The container’s interior is composed of two stacked compartments joined by a hole. A mouse is placed in the lower compartment. Ten small, flour-coated sticks attached with string to a small turtle shell are placed in the upper compartment. Each morning and night the diviner poses a question of personal concern or inquires on behalf of a client seeking guidance. The mouse creeps into the upper chamber and nibbles at the flour on the sticks, moving them around and creating symbolic patterns that the Baule diviner interprets.
The point for the Cyborg Brains and Human Minds students is not whether the symbols are accurate predictions of the future or valid suggestions for a course of action. Instead, our discussion revolved around how objects can affect cognitive processes. To reach a decision on two or more possible choices is, for many among the Baule, impossible without a mouse oracle. A specific state of mind (in this case, satisfaction with the choice) can only be achieved through the use of the object. Cognition is extended beyond the confines of the head or body to include the oracle—an interesting idea to ponder and one that sparked a fascinating conversation with the class.
After that, we all went outside and threw spears with atlatls in front of Middle College, but that’s a story for another Museum Monday.