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


2 thoughts on “You Didn’t Build That! Why You Can’t Claim Credit for Your Mind

  1. Your blog, your world, feel free to delete if this isn’t what you’re looking for. It’s a great topic, couldn’t help myself from impulsively writing down some quick reactions.

    I really like the Abacus example, very cool and brings home the concept well. It probably doesn’t need more, but have you looked at how their language gives them an better tool kit for math over English above and beyond the abacus? (and makes learning to use the abacus easier!)?

    As you I’m sure are well studied, perhaps it is not just a tool handed down, but also ‘hardwired’ into us (at least the precursors and readiness for it) also.
    “It’s rare that we get to see the birth of a whole new language…one that develops completely naturally, without any help from role models or teachers. But that’s exactly what happened in Nicaragua in the early 1980’s, and it gives us great insight into the ‘nature’ vs. ‘nurture’ question of language acquisition.”
    Other cool readings:
    And on and on, it is far from settled science, but there’s enough data to make an interesting case imho.

    If you haven’t read, and are really into languages and how they deeply shape the human mind, then I can’t recommend more “The Power of Babel”. Wonderful read, very well
    It’s a bit old and probably outdated, if you have a more updated favorite please share 🙂

    On hardwiring vs. ‘mental tools’ (which I’ve often read as ‘culture’):
    Lots might be ‘hardwired’, or at least the foundations of the ‘mental tools’ that humans have built on for 200K plus years (depending where you draw the modern human/non-human line).
    Like physics:
    “Cats understand the principle of cause and effect as well as some elements of physics.”

    The Meme:
    Have you read Dawkins’ (before he went all anti-religion and pissed off the world) “The Selfish Gene”? In it he did a very rare thing, invented a word non-organically (turns out it’s really hard to do that). The tools you speak of might be more like parasites using us, than tools that we use. Information, through the same process as genes, is naturally selected based on its replication fitness and spreads or ‘dies’ based on that ability. And much like a physical virus, information can’t replicate on its own, it needs a host, and like a cold virus that host is humans. Mental + gene = Meme.

    It gets worse:
    Are you thinking of going the next level down the rabbit hole? Not only did we not build it, we didn’t ‘choose’ it. Not in any classic libertarian/deeply meaningful way at least.
    All physics at affect our daily lives is known, tested, ‘done’. There’s no room for what I’d call ‘traditional free will’. It’s a mind blowing concept.
    A great Google talks on it by Sean Carrol

    I could, and would love!, to have a deep intellectual conversation about free will and your perspective, or just dump lots of stuff on you from neurobiology, physics and philosophy if you like, but won’t now. This is getting too long already 😀 (you can jump to 13:50 to get to the crazy claim that the laws of physics that govern daily life are all known)

    A nit: (I apologize in advance)
    I know I’m biased, but I hope this nit is not purely from my bias. Coupling religion and morals at the end of this academic article just feels out of place. It took me a minute to figure out why and determine it wasn’t just my bias rearing it’s ugly head. I think it’s that it was partly that it is singled out above philosophy, evolution (altruism, kin selection, other probable sources), inevitability of groups working together e.g. game theory (, and others (which you lumped all together). All these sources of morals are debatable, no clear winner but I think that religion feels intellectually lazy in this context, “because a supernatural being(s) told me too” doesn’t fit the theme. How is divine revelation a tool being built upon like the other tools listed above? True it’s not created by the subject, it’s handed down, but it’s static, and nothing else is in the article. It feels out of place for that reason. All the other examples are things improved (or changed at least) over time by successive generations. And if you meant a much fuzzier, hard to pin down, less traditional definition of religion, say as a generic non-governmental cultural system, then I’d suggest that you just unnecessarily mudded the water). It’s not a big nit. And I admit I’m in a tiny group that would be tripped up by it.

    Thanks for letting us read the article. I really liked it. You write in a very approachable, readable manner. I look forward to more.

    *please forgive the typos, I’m not a writer, or academic, and rely on compilers to fix my typos which are written mostly in non-human languages.



  2. These are great resources. I’ll have to work my way through them. A couple quick responses:

    Regarding language and math, in that same Stigler article I cite, he talks about that. I haven’t read your resources yet, but he talks about how in English, compared to other languages, there is a delay with learning numbers starting at 11. Because the language isn’t informative. If English was like other languages, eleven and twelve would be onety-one and onety-two or simply one-one, one-two, and so on.

    Vygotsky acknowledge both the biological and sociocultural paths of development. But he really wasn’t interested in the biological (nature) side of things so nearly his whole theory focuses on the sociocultural processes. He certainly would acknowledge the hardwiring for language, but as with nearly all biological processes, he was says these just provide a basic capacity or inclination and the mind (as we know it) doesn’t really develop without the sociocultural processes.

    In the book, I have a longer discussion of moral reasoning centered around Jesse Ventura’s claim that religion is a crutch for the weak minded. The point I’m trying to make is that there can be virtually no moral reasoning without the moral constructs we acquire from social institutions including (but not limited to) religion. There’s no true independent thought or reasoning. We’re all reliant upon the constructs that have become embedding in our culture just as our mathematical reasoning is reliant on the math constructs that are part of our culture.


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