Monday, 9 February 2015

You and your significant other - Beyond Distributed Cognition, Transactive Memory, and Extended Mind?

According to Hutchinson, cognitive processes may be distributed across the members of a social group, cognitive processes may be distributed in the sense that the operation of the cognitive system involves coordination between internal and external structure, and processes may be distributed through time in such a way that the products of earlier events can transform the nature of later events.

Following this line of argument, long-term partnerships can be considered distributed memory systems. This notion is made by Harris et al. (2014) in a cross-study examination: Examining shared remembering in intimate couples, they studied their collaboration on rather simple memory tasks as well as their conversations about shared past experiences, and furthermore explored their everyday memory compensation strategies in order to investigate the complex ways that couples may coordinate their material and interpersonal resources. Although their results are somewhat ambiguous (some findings suggested that intimacy and shared identity can influence the nature of shared remembering in terms of both the contents and the processes of shared remembering; episodic memory tended to be stronger than semantic memory), they claim that since such systems are not developed or utilised universally, everyday remembering is better understood by conceptualising people and their social and material environments as dynamic, coordinated systems.
The phenomenon of shared memory has been addressed in earlier research as well, but labelled differently:
Wegner, Erber and Raymond (1991) studied memory performance of 118 individuals who had been in a close relationship for at least three months. They expected that couples formed on an impromptu basis in the laboratory might gain in group memory performance as a result of an imposed organizational strategy, as such a plan would help them to focus their individual memory efforts to the pair's benefit. Because close couples already have an understood structure in place, however they expected that an imposed organizational strategy might interfere with their implicit arrangement and thus undermine their memory performance. The study showed that memory performance of the natural pairs was better than that of impromptu pairs without assigned structure, whereas the performance of natural pairs was inferior to that of impromptu pairs when structure was assigned. Hence, their analogy to memory sharing in computer systems:

“If each person learns in some general way what the other person may know in detail, the two can share the detailed memories enjoyed by both. The development of a transactive memory in the pair, then, involves the communication and updating of information each has about the areas of the other's knowledge. In essence, each partner cultivates the other as an external memory aid.” (p.923).
“There are surely other sources of information people use in fashioning directories of one another's knowledge(…) The key point for the present analysis is that the most complete and current directories are likely to be formed in relationships that are close” (p.924).

It seems nevertheless insufficient to rely on the framework of distributed cognition and/or transactive memory when trying to grasp the interconnectivity of human beings in a long-term relationship because many aspects of reciprocal reliance don’t get addressed. Interestingly, Harris et al. adopted Clarke and Chalmers’ Extended Mind criteria when referring to the distributed cognition framework as the framing of their study; they however use it just as framework for their memory-related questions instead of elaborating on the idea.
Tollefsen (2006) fleshes out the idea of groups as the bearers of mental states on the same grounds and transfers the functions of Otto’s Notebook onto a life partner. First of all, let us remember what they are:

1. ‘The resource(s) must be available and typically invoked’. Otto always uses his notebook and carries it with him. He appeals to it on a regular basis when asked questions such as ‘‘Do you know...?’’
2. ‘That any information thus retrieved be more or less automatically endorsed. It is not always subject to scrutiny. It should be deemed as trustworthy as something retrieved clearly from biological memory’.
3. ‘Information contained in the resource should be easily accessible’
4. Finally, to avoid some obvious objections involving readily available books and internet search engines, the information contained in the resource must have been previously endorsed by the subject. It is Otto who places the information in his notebook. If it just appeared there we would probably not grant it the same status as that of a belief.

Tollefsen then asks us to consider Olaf who is married to Inga. They have been married for 30 years. Olaf does not suffer from AD, but often gets lost in his work and has difficulty remembering his appointments, phone numbers, addresses, and so on. Since they spend a great amount of time together Inga provides Olaf with all of the information that he needs in order to get through his day, so she seems to serve Olaf the same purpose that Otto’s notebook serves him, and meets the criteria given by Clark and Chalmers:

“1. Inga is readily available to Olaf and Olaf typically invokes Inga on a variety of daily details. ‘Inga, what time is my appointment with the Dean?’ ‘Inga what is the name of my teaching assistant?’
2. The information that Inga provides Olaf is more or less automatically endorsed. In fact, Olaf has come to so rely on Inga that he does even trust his biological memory. He often asks Inga to verify things that he has biologically recalled. ‘I think I have an appointment Thursday. Is this correct?’
3. Because I have stipulated that Inga is always with Olaf the information contained in Inga is easy for Olaf to access. Indeed, Inga is much more convenient and reliable than Otto’s notebook. After all, Otto needs to retrieve the notebook and then locate where he has put the address. He might forget to bring his notebook or it might go through the wash. This is not likely to happen with Inga. Because Inga is an active participant in the coupled system of which she is a member her presence is more reliable than a mere artifact. A loving and committed, cognitive partner, Inga is always there – through sickness, health, and memory loss.
4. Finally, the information that is contained in Inga is information that Olaf previously endorsed at some time or another. Inga is not making it up as she goes along. Olaf is partly responsible for the storage of this information. ‘Inga, will you remind me that I have an appointment on Thursday at 4?’
Its seems, then, that if C and C are correct, the mind not only extends to encompass non-biological artifacts, forming systems that support cognition and dispositional attitudes like belief, but it also occasionally forms collective systems that support cognition and belief” (p.143).

Unlike Otto’s notebook, Inga is active and has a “mind” of herself. So does the argument of functional equivalency hold there? Is Inga part of Otto’s mind and/ or Otto part of Inga’s? Or are they forming a “collective mind”, as Tollefsen proposes by means of her paper’s title?

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