Thursday, 9 February 2017

Distributed Cognition

The traditional view of cognition is highly contentious, and many are moving away from the perspective that humans process information by perceiving stimuli with their senses, interpret it in the brain, and then produce a behaviour in response to it. 

Edwin Hutchins firmly supports a distributed cognitive theory, whereby the individual and the context are so closely entwined they cannot be separated into 'information processor' and 'information to be processed'. Hutchins understands cognition to be distributed over time, space and between individuals and objects. He, like many, propose that when an individual is making a decision, or solving a problem, they are not doing so in isolation, but in continuous communication with the world around them. 

Distributed Cognition builds on the theory of the Extended Mind, but goes further to claim that humans do not merely use tools around them to help them process information, instead we are absolutely reliant upon other people, objects and previous experiences to make sense of any information present. 

Although initially surprising to consider cognition in this way, the more one reflects on how we recall memories, draw inferences and learn new skills, the more one can understand this perspective. Hutchins cites Vygotsky's developmental work to support the Distributed Cognition theory (Society of Mind, 1978). Vygotsky noticed that young children initially process information 'external' to themselves, and are often highly reliant upon other people and objects. For example it is common to hear a young child verbalising thoughts, or see them physically move objects rather than imagine the consequences of their movement. Over time this information processing becomes more 'internalised', but it is still distributed in time, space and between individuals.


One of the greatest challenges to Cognitive Science, including the field of Distributed Cognition, is the current inability to define what is actually meant by 'cognition'. Commonly it is understood to encompass all the things we 'do in our head', such as mental arithmetic, deciding what to eat, recognising a friend. However the theory of Distributed Cognition is just one field of Cognition Science which is increasingly moving away from the idea that we do anything 'in our heads'. Firstly, the head (or brain) is just one organ which is able to process information, so there is now doubt over whether we can claim that processing occurs solely within the brain. Secondly, Hutchins and others question whether the skull really is a barrier within which processing takes place. Distributed Cognition suggests that nothing happens inside ourselves which is not inextricably linked to other people, objects and experiences. 

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