Distributed Cognition: Definition & Theory

Instructor: Nathan Kilgore

Nathan has taught college Psychology, Sociology, English, and Communications and has a master's degree in education.

Edwin Hutchins contributes to cognitive science by challenging the traditional view of the mind. In this lesson, we'll explore his distributed cognition theory and consider your mind to be larger than life itself.

What Is Cognitive Science?

The cognitive sciences share the commonality of examining the mind. There are many fields of cognitive science, including philosophy, psychology, anthropology and other sciences. All of these aim to study the mind in one form or another. Cognitive science, for example, examines how the mind processes information or how imagination is employed. Nearly all branches of cognitive science focus on the mind as simply being within one individual. However, distributed cognition theory suggests that the cognitive process extends beyond one individual.

The Birth of Distributed Cognition Theory

The theory of distributed cognition was crafted by Edwin Hutchins in 1995. Hutchins birthed the idea while teaching at the University of California. There, Hutchins conducted two experiments: one involving the navigation of a ship and another involving the cockpit of an airplane.

From his observations involving the ship, it was gathered that in order for it to be navigated successfully, information from several resources must collaborate. After all, the navigation of a ship requires the cooperation and combined effort of sailors, technology, and tools. In similar fashion, Hutchins observed that navigating an airplane also employs numerous resources. Therefore Hutchins concluded, that cognition seems to be more than simply an individual effort, but the collaboration of shared resources.

Internal vs. External

Since each of us has a mind that we use to process information, most have historically considered cognition to be an individual mental activity. This can make the theory of distributed cognition challenging to understand. Typically, we think of cognition as it refers to an individual or internal act. Consider, for instance, an individual that drives a car from one location to another, utilizing their memory of directions to successfully arrive at the targeted destination. The act of the driver utilizing their memory of directions defines their cognition as individualistic (or contained within the individual). Defining cognition as 'internal' is a traditional or pre-Hutchins view.

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