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Beyond the brain

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Researchers at the University of Edinburgh are challenging how we think about thinking.

Dr Mark Sprevak, Senior Lecturer in the School of Philosophy, Psychology & Language Sciences is part of a team encouraging others to re-examine mental mechanisms through the lens of a concept of ‘distributed cognition’. The term encompasses different views that all stem from the idea that thinking is not just something that you do with your brain.

“If you are interested in the mechanisms of thought, of mental life, of cognition, of experience, then certainly you need to look at individual brains, but you also need to look at elements beyond the brain,” says Dr Sprevak.

“This may include looking at bits of the body and it may include looking at the environment of the individual in which they’re operating,” he continues. “It may also include looking at pieces of technology and at social relationships.”

A portrait of Dr Mark Sprevak
Dr Mark Sprevak

Offloading thoughts

So how can these mechanisms be outside the brain? Dr Sprevak gives a simple example: “There are lots of surprising and counterintuitive ways in which our thought depends on the particular makeup of our bodies and the particular ways in which our bodies are being used in any given situation.

“An obvious example would be counting on your fingers. People often keep track of counts by offloading some of that information rather than storing it all inside their brains.”

In other words, any time you think and use gestures or movements in your body as part of the process, you’re using mechanisms outside of your head to aid your thought process, and you might find it harder to continue thinking if you’re prevented from making this movement.

A historic phenomenon

When asked about thinking outside the brain, some people’s minds might jump to current technology, specifically smartphones. But distributed cognition is much older and examples can be found throughout history: “When people think about distributed cognition, they assume that it is a primarily a modern phenomenon. It’s easy to get caught up in science fiction-like stories about implants and uploading but I think that there’s been an increasing realisation in the humanities that distributed cognition reflects something incredibly ancient, robust, and central about being a human being,” says Dr Sprevak.

three students sit in a cafe with laptops/iPads etc

“In the words of my colleague Andy Clark, humans are, and have always been, natural-born cyborgs. We’ve always been utilising external resources in our environment to help us solve cognitive problems.” Dr Sprevak is part of an interdisciplinary team exploring how examples of distributed cognition can be traced back through history in the Western world. The team includes colleagues from across the University and beyond. Douglas Cairns, Professor of Classics, and Dr Miranda Anderson, Honorary Fellow, both in the School of History, Classics & Archaeology, and Mike Wheeler, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Stirling make up the core of the team.

“We found many interesting and non-obvious examples of offloading thought onto the environment,” says Dr Sprevak. “Some of them might seem unremarkable to us now, but at the time they would have been innovative and revolutionary. For example, disposable ceramic tiles have been found in Roman barracks which were scratched with a new technology for thinking, the nested list.”

a to do list is written on a pad

Other examples seem more alien and morally troublesome. Dr Sprevak explains: “In many ways, you could say the data economy of the Roman and Greek world wasn’t so dissimilar from our own. They didn’t have electronic computers to do data processing, but they did have human beings, namely slaves.

“This is something that appears morally repellent to us, but what some rich Romans were doing was offloading their thought processes, information storage, and cognitive capacities to individuals that they literally owned. They were using other humans to do the thinking for them. The owners, of course, claimed these thoughts as their own.”

There are other examples which seem surprisingly modern and contemporary. The Victorians’ obsession with efficiency and self-improvement mirrors that common in Silicon Valley today: “Their proposals on how you can improve yourself were remarkably close to what appears in the digital productivity literature: an individual’s attention is a finite resource and you should be careful in managing your attention. They were very interested in offloading willpower and control of attention onto bits of the environment to become more productive and efficient.”

Another perspective

Looking back at the past in this manner can potentially change how we understand history. Dr Sprevak elaborates: “Historians are, for all sorts of reasons, fascinated by the material culture of the past. Historians also study how social and cultural factors play a role in contributing to the course of events.

a hand holds a digital light bulb

“What distributed cognition does is suggest that these ways of exploring the past offer something new and perhaps unexpected. They open a window into something that is notoriously difficult to get at, an individual’s thought processes. The framework of distributed cognition potentially allows existing work on material culture and social and cultural history leverage into this difficult and fascinating domain.”

Artistic creation

The research team decided that some of these ideas could potentially be applied to the world of contemporary art. Dr Sprevak elaborates: “It’s not uncommon to think that creativity is an individualistic and linear affair: an artist has a grand vision and then they go out and implement it to create a work of art. That model of artistic creativity is often complemented by an individualistic and linear model of how someone ought to appreciate or react to an artwork: they are meant to perceive it, think about it, and then eventually come to a settled view about it.

Two people examine a piece of art in a gallery

“Distributed cognition suggests that the processes involved in both artistic creation and appreciation may be messier, and that they may involve a two-way interaction between the environment and the artwork and between the artist and their audience. This distributed way of thinking fits with how many contemporary artists already think about their creative process and how they, sometimes implicitly, manage interactions with viewers of their artwork.

“It is important to emphasise that we were not bringing an idea that was novel or foreign to the contemporary artworld. It instead helped to crystalise ways in which many artists were already thinking about their own practice and allowed them to interrogate them better.”

The extended mind

To put these ideas into practice, in 2019 Dr Sprevak and colleagues worked with the Talbot Rice Gallery in the University to create The Extended Mind exhibition. This brought together 13 internationally renowned artists to explore themes of distributed cognition. Artists involved in the project included Gianfranco Baruchello, Marcus Coates, Marjolijn Dijkman, Nikolaus Gansterer, Joseph Grigely, Agnieszka Kurant, John Menick, Myriam Lefkowitz, Daria Martin, William McKeown, Goro Murayama, Angelo Plessas, and Magali Reus.

Several artworks from the extended mind exhibition at the Talbot Rice Gallery
Angelo Plessas, Karma Dome, 2019. Installation view, The Extended Mind, 2019

This was the first research-based collaboration with the Talbot Rice Gallery and it was funded by the AHRC via an impact funding award. A series of public talks and discussions put the artists in dialogue with members of the public, which provoked reflections on the nature of artistic creativity and how distributed cognition fits into artistic practice. Marcus Coates reflected after his talk that: “All art exemplifies the extended mind. This wasn’t obvious to me before and it was a bit of a revelation to me… this will influence how I will think in the future about the creative mind and my own artistic practice.”

The project also invited members of the public from communities across the city to encourage a conversation about artistic creation, that could continue even after they had left the exhibition. “I was in the gallery and got to see some of the members of the public interacting with the art,” explains Dr Sprevak. “We had school kids running around, folks affected by homelessness, visually impaired people, art-theory students, we got to experience all sorts of different reactions.”

Several artworks from the extended mind exhibition at the Talbot Rice Gallery
Installation view, The Extended Mind, 2019

One workshop attendee commented that the ideas had helped her “to see behind the artwork to the artist’s ideas, and also to consider the process of their production.” Another reflected on how a better understanding of the distributed nature of art “could help children and adults get more engaged with art.” James Clegg, curator at the Talbot Rice Gallery described how the ideas from the exhibition have influenced how he has curated subsequent exhibitions: “artworks don’t simply come from an artist’s brain, but have to be worked out through time, via concrete media and through the body… [the] research behind distributed cognition validates and articulates this way of working, not as an artistic exception, but as a human necessity.”

Marcus Coats' artwork of lots of hands in different positions
Marcus Coates, Extinct Animals, 2018, Plaster of Paris, cast from the artist’s hands. The Extended Mind, 2019

“A lot of the artwork was interactive,” Dr Sprevak continues. “Some of it in obvious ways in that you touch it, move it, and go physically inside it. Other pieces less obviously so, but you still need to move around and experience it from different angles and think about how its elements might be used in order to actually ‘view’ it. A common theme reported by the nearly 4,000 visitors to the exhibition was a visceral appreciation for the importance of an ongoing, two-way interaction with the artwork.”

Several artworks from the extended mind exhibition at the Talbot Rice Gallery
Installation view, The Extended Mind, 2019

Having established a strong foundation, this collaboration between Edinburgh experts is looking to continue to expand their work and challenge others to consider their work through the lens of distributed cognition to see what new insights it could uncover.

Their next project is to bring some of the lessons from history and contemporary art back to philosophy and cognitive science. Working on how cognition is distributed in these cases has thrown up some puzzles for existing models.

On a broader horizon, the research team is keen to look at distributed cognition outside a Western context, and to collaborate with scholars working on Asian, Chinese, and Pacific cultures.

With each new project and collaboration, Dr Sprevak is excited to see how distributed cognition can open up new questions and influence new routes of research: “Even though I’ve been working in this field for ten years, there’s so much more potential for what we can discover and how we can use distributed cognition to understand other disciplines. I’m excited to see where this work can take us and see the impact it might have on people across the humanities.”

Images: GettyImages; The Extended Mind images courtesy Talbot Rice Gallery.