You Didn’t Build That! Why You Can’t Claim Credit for Your Mind

The following blog has excepts from the forthcoming book Computers, Cockroaches and Ecosystems: Understanding Learning through Metaphor.


“I built this!” Maybe you remember that slogan from the last presidential election cycle. Maybe you even have an authentic “I built this!” t-shirt from the Glenn Beck line of apparel. Then again, maybe you have no idea what I’m talking about. Here’s a refresher. In his 2012 campaign, President Obama uttered the unfortunate phrase “You didn’t build that,” while trying to argue that those who succeed in business do not do so on their own. The backlash was immediate because nothing upsets us quite like being robbed of proper credit. Well, prepare your ego because it gets worse—you cannot even take credit for your own intelligence. Your very thoughts, your mind itself, is not your own. When it comes to the thing most you, you might have to say, “I didn’t build that.”


 Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934) was a psychologist interested in studying the mind. However, doing so in Stalin’s Russia was a dangerous endeavor as it did not clearly fit with Marxist thought and tradition (Prawat, 2000). So instead of studying the mind directly, like his contemporary Jean Piaget, Vygotsky used a cultural and historical perspective. He studied the development of humans as a species and the development of human societies and reasoned the processes critical to development in these domains would parallel those central to the development of the mind. Such reasoning would have a profound effect on our current understanding of the mind.


Lev Vygotsky

So what are the processes critical to the development of humans as a species and the development of human societies? You can probably figure this out for yourself, but I am going to illustrate it through a fishing story because, quite frankly, I enjoy telling fishing stories—and this one includes a bear.

The Brooks River in Alaska is famous for its fishing. It is even more famous for its bears. Dozens of brown bears converge on the river each season to do their own fishing. Because of all the bears, there are strict rules for the human fishermen. First, you have to stay at least 50 yards away from the bears. Second, if you have a fish on your line and a bear comes by, you have to break the fish off because you do not want (a) the fish splashing around and attracting the bear and (b) the bears to start associating fisherman with an easy meal. Third, and above all, fish caught must be immediately returned to the water because you do not want to get caught holding a fish when a bear comes by.


One of the bears waiting for a salmon

Well, one day I am fishing and the river is bursting at the seams. Sockeye salmon by the hundreds are running through the river and bears are chasing them all over the place. Me, I am just trying to avoid the bears and catch the big rainbow trout hiding by the banks to avoid the stampede of salmon. Well, I happen to hook the fish of the trip; a huge rainbow trout that sends me chasing after it down river. Luckily, there are no bears in my path, and after a long battle, I land the fish on a shallowly submerged gravel bar. Elated, I scoop up the fish. And then, just as I am holding this trophy fish, I hear a noise behind me. I glance over my shoulder and there, not ten feet away from me, emerging through the shoulder high grass, is the head of an Alaskan brown bear.

So here I am, breaking all the bear rules and fearing that I am about to be the turf in a bear’s surf and turf meal. What is worse, I cannot just drop the fish in the water because the water is two-three inches deep for 15 feet in all directions. If I drop the fish, it is going to splash and make a huge commotion at my feet. So I hug the fish against my chest, where I hope it is out-of-sight, and waddle sideways upstream with my back to the bear, clinging desperately to the wiggling fish, until the water is deep enough for me to throw it in. Once the fish is released, I look back to check on the bear.

Now this is the important part and the point of the whole story. When I look back the bear is still staring at me, with a look on its face that says, “You are pathetic.” Then, as if to prove its superiority, the bear leaps in the river, pounces on a salmon, and turns back to look at me with the salmon wiggling in its jaws.

It is hard not to realize the depths of your pitiful nature at a moment like this. To even be out here, I need a pair of waders, long underwear, fleece pants, a fleece jacket, a rain jacket, a wool hat, and fingerless gloves. To catch a fish, I have a fly rod and reel plus a fishing vest with half a fly shop stuffed in it. The bear needs none of this. The bear is a brute force of nature. And this is the difference between humans and other animals. In a word, we are pathetic without our tools.

But with our tools…we rule! This is what sets us apart from the animals. We construct way better tools. Tools are also the key to the development of human societies. Think about it. The great ages of human history are defined in terms of their tools: the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, the Industrial Age, the Information Age, and so on.

If tools are the key to the development of human societies and humans as a species, might tools—mental tools—also be the key to the development of the human mind? This is exactly what Vygtosky (1978; 1986) proposed.

Try the following task: add the five 3-digit numbers listed below without using a pencil and paper, calculator, or other external aid. Just, do the math in your head.

  • 497
  • 348
  • 245
  • 823
  • 767

Could you do it? If so, how long did it take? If you’re like me, it probably took you a while. Actually, if you’re like me, you probably forgot the first part of the answer halfway through, added individual digits wrong, and started reaching for a pencil (the correct answer, by the way, is 2,680).

James Stigler (1984) discovered that eleven-year-old Chinese students could solve this problem in just three seconds. Three seconds! At the time of Stigler’s study, these students were trained in the use of the abacus, a calculating tool involving bars and beads. Students learned to do calculations quickly and effortlessly using the abacus, and eventually, they no longer needed the physical abacus. They could just picture it in their minds, mentally manipulate the beads, and do things like add five 3-digit numbers in a remarkable three seconds.



The abacus is an example of a mental tool (Vygotsky used the term signs). Mental tools transform the nature of mental work (i.e., thinking) just as physical tools transform the nature of physical work. The abacus allowed Chinese students to perform mental math far more efficiently just as a shovel—or a backhoe—allows an individual to dig a hole far more efficiently. The algorithms we use to solve math problems are also mental tools. In fact, virtually all our mathematical reasoning is mediated by mental tools created by prior cultures. We aren’t much without these mental tools. This point applies to all our reasoning. The nature and quality of our mental activity is dependent on the nature and quality of our mental tools.

Here’s another task. Try having a deep thought without using language. In fact, try having any thought without using language. How did it go? Not easy, is it? That is because language is the mother of all mental tools. Vygotsky (1986) proposed that we first learn to use language in interaction with other people. Then we gradually internalize language and use it with ourselves. When external speech becomes inner speech, thought, as we know it, comes into existence. Consider the case of Ildefonso (pseudonym), a man who grew up without language.

The nature and quality of our mental activity is dependent on the nature and quality of our mental tools.

Ildefonso was born deaf and raised in southern Mexico without exposure to sign language. In her book, A Man Without Words, Susan Schaller describes her experience of helping a 27-year-old Ildefonso learn language. She would try to teach him simple signs but he had no sense that these signs meant anything. He simply copied back her movements. This went on for weeks. She focused on the symbol “cat.” In every possible combination, Schaller signed “cat,” finger-spelled “cat,” wrote “cat,” acted like a cat, pointed to a picture of a cat, mimed petting a cat, and acted out being Ildefonso coming to understand the meaning of cat. One day, after one her endless cat routines, something clicked for Ildefonso. He sat up straight, eyes wide. He slapped his hands on the table and Schaller signed back “table.” He slapped his book and she signed “book.” He demanded the signs for more objects and Shaller gave them. What happened next is both revealing and heartbreaking. Ildefonso suddenly turned pale. He collapsed on the table. He began to weep. Schaller writes,

Welcome to my world, Ildefonso…Let me show you all the miracles accomplished with symbols…I will show you how to bathe in the swirling, magical river called Language. You can swim anywhere, meet anyone and anything, or just float on one of those lovely names. Let me open the door to this world that refused to let you in. (p. 45)

Seven years later, Schaller was reunited with Ildefonso. He was now fluid in sign and Schaller tried to get him to talk about his life before language. What was it like to not have language? What was it like to think without language? Ildefonso never answered these questions directly. Instead he took her to meet some old friends who also lacked language. The friends communicated almost exclusively through miming particular experiences and lacked the kind of cognitive functioning that Ildefonso now possessed. For them, Ildefonso had become an awe-inspiring figure. Schaller writes, “His leap to language dumbfounded them.…They considered him a genius and treated him with great respect. He had become the leader of the languageless clan” (p. 184-185).

On a WNYC Radiolab program (2010), Schaller explained that two years after this experience, she ran into Ildefonso and again tried to get him to directly talk about what it was like to not have language. She commented that he was again evasive and then added, “But the interesting thing that he said was he can’t even think that way anymore. He said he can’t think the way he used to think.” When Schaller pushed him to give some idea of what it was like, he responded, “I don’t know. I don’t remember.”


Can we claim our mind as our own? Ildefonso’s mind was so transformed by the acquisition of language that he cannot even think the way he used to; he cannot even remember what it was like to think, to live, to exist without language. Ildefonso’s mind, as it exists today, came into being through the acquisition of language. Ildefonso did not construct language. It was given to him. Language is a gift from society. A gift developed over thousands of years and, in Ildefonso’s case, bestowed through the patient efforts of one individual who could not refrain from sharing this gift.

We are all in the same boat as Ildefonso. We owe a great debt to society for our minds. What would we be without language? What would our math minds be without algorithms? What would our science minds be without Newton’s laws, Einstein’s theories, and countless other concepts? What would our moral minds be without principles from religious or other value systems? Principles such as equality, compassion, justice, forgiveness, purity, and sacrifice. Could we even engage in moral reasoning without these? Could we engage in any reasoning without the mental tools bestowed upon us by society and culture? Can we really claim, of our own mind, “I built this!”?



Prawat, R. S. (2000). Dewey meets the “Mozart of psychology” in Moscow: The untold story. American Educational Research Journal, 37, 663-696.

Schaller, S. (1991). A man without words. New York: Summit Books.

Stigler, J. W. (1984). “Mental abacus”: The effect of abacus training on Chinese children’s mental calculation. Cognitive Psychology, 16, 145-176.

Vygotsky, L. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Vygotsky, L. (1986). Thought and language (A. Kozulin, trans.). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

WNYC. (2010, Aug 9). Radiolab: Words. Retrieved from