Disjointed distributed cognition

I used to know the phone numbers of about 5 of my friends at any given time, as well as my father’s work number. Then I got a mobile phone. Since then I only remember one – my wife’s. I also remember how to go about extracting the hundreds of phone numbers on my phone. Two things have changed: the type of knowledge I have (now it is a process) and where my knowledge resides (outside me).

Distributed cognition refers to the fact that cognitive functions (remembering, organising, calculating, processing)  take place outside my skull. This is not particularly novel – mankind has long used artifacts in the world to carry out acts of thought. Note taking and use of abacus was effectively an outsourcing of mental activities. Some theories of distributed cognition might even argue that the rush of birds into the skies that alerted our ancestors to a prowling predator might count as an extension of our mental capacities.

The shapes those early note takers carved onto clay tablets reflected some underlying structure of the human mind and, as we can still see in pictorial alphabets, something of the underlying structure of the visible world.


Sacks points out that all writing systems, from Roman letters to Chinese ideograms, have evolved to take advantage of the preference of “inferotemporal neurons” in our brains for certain shapes found in the natural environment.

While alphabets and ideograms from around the world may look superficially different, topological analysis shows a strong underlying similarity that would not be present if written shapes were an arbitrary cultural choice.

In the written element of our distributed cognition system the external artefacts in which we trust some of our mental faculties reflect the structure of what is inside our own skull.

But as the creation of external mental artefacts has increasingly been dictated by the materials and means of production with which we work, I wonder whether the efficiency of our distributed cognition systems decreases. Where once the external representations were designed by a human brain, eye and hand, now this can be done at a remove, by machines and computers which have a different underlying structure to our own brains. (examples welcome, stick them in the comments)

We are able to learn new systems and the lack of the direct correlation to the underlying structure of our mind is something we can overcome. But this learning is not always instantly portable across operating systems. A friend of mine recently changed phones and had significant difficulty entering new phone numbers into his device, eventually asking the lady he was seducing to enter the number in it herself as she had a similar model.

It is ultimately the avoidance of such fraying of the connections between external mental processes and internal ones that  earns the label “intuitive” to user interfaces.


David Bryant (@davidbryant ), notes that actually computers are becoming more like the objects in the world that we can manipulate, perhaps  making the artefacts of our distributed cognition better reflections of our mental structures.


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