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What Is Distributed Cognition?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Shereen Skola
  • Last Modified Date: 14 November 2016
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Distributed cognition is the theory that cognitive processes are not limited to individual minds, but instead are distributed across populations, environments, objects, and time. As people interact with their surroundings, they complete cognitive tasks and achieve a deeper understanding of events. Researchers with an interest in this subject study people in natural settings to learn more about how their interactions shape cognitive processes from memory formation to completing complex tasks.

A classic example was presented by researcher Ed Hutchins in the 1990s. He presented the example of a ship coming into port, which is a form of cognitive task; the people on board the ship need to bring it into port safely. Navigating a ship, however, is not a task that one person alone can usually perform. Multiple sailors coordinate with the captain and a pilot to address a number of issues that come up as the ship approaches the shore, in interactions that comprise a form of distributed cognition.

Within groups, distributed cognition can be particularly striking. Teams that work together, like the flight crew of an aircraft or a group of doctors and nurses in an emergency room, share cognitive processes. They work smoothly to accomplish complex tasks that single individuals cannot perform. This involves pooling knowledge, skills, comprehension, and interaction with objects and symbols in the environment. In surgery, for instance, the surgeon relies on the anesthesiologist to monitor the patient’s health while working with people like scrub nurses and interns who provide assistance.

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In addition to being seen in groups, distributed cognition can also involve the processing of information over time and space. This can include the shaping of memories through prior experiences and activities like navigating large and complex environments. Geologists surveying a canyon, for example, engage in a form of distributed cognition as they move through space to understand the environment, note key features, and develop a comprehensive overview of the information they collect.

This has important implications for a number of activities, like organizing teams effectively and creating productive learning environments. Teachers thinking about distributed cognition need to consider not just the cognitive processes in individual students, but how the overall classroom contributes or detracts from learning. Group work, for instance, can help students harness cognitive processes to learn and expand their understanding of topics. A classroom space with enriching materials can stimulate distributed cognition, while a stark learning environment may be less conducive to acquiring and retaining knowledge.

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