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Cognition Beyond the Brain: Computation, Interactivity and Human Artifice

Cowley, Stephen J. and Vallée-Tourangeau, Frédéric (eds.)
Springer-Verlag: Berlin, 2013
ISBN 9781447151258 (pb)

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Reviewed by Emma Norling
Manchester Metropolitan University

Cover of book Cognition Beyond the Brain is a collection of works that had its beginnings in a 2009 symposium on ‘distributed thinking’ (p. 6), building upon presentations from this meeting and incorporating later contributions on the subject. It brings together researchers from a diverse range of backgrounds, unified by their interest in the idea that cognition is situated, and moreover, that some cognition cannot be understood in terms of a single individual. The idea of individuals being situated will come as no surprise to readers of this journal; the notion of distributed cognition may be somewhat more novel, and this book is an excellent reference on the topic.

Distributed cognition is the idea that cognition sometimes extends beyond the brain of one individual, to encompass other people in a social setting and the physical artefacts that are used to help represent knowledge. This idea arises out of Hutchins’ seminal work (1995a, 1995b) - cited in the majority of chapters in this volume - which looks at cognition in the context of operations aboard a US naval vessel. What becomes clear upon reading this volume is there is not clear consensus on a definition of distributed cognition, or what it means for understanding and modelling systems. Indeed, the chapters of this book do a good job of reflecting the diversity of opinion in this area.

The chapters themselves range from case studies involving distributed cognition (and using these to consider limitations of Hutchins’ and others approaches to distributed cognition), to particular aspects of distributed cognition (judgement aggregation and trust), to more philosophical discussions around the idea of distributed cognition (including symbol grounding, sponsorship, the role of ethics, the use of external representations, and the difference between laboratory-based studies of cognition and "real-world" settings). In some cases, the contributions are extremely dense and there appears to be an assumption of background knowledge that some readers (such as myself) do not share, but the majority of the chapters are clearly written and should be easily accessible to the JASSS audience. I found even those chapters that were difficult reads to provide interesting and stimulating perspectives on distributed cognition.

On finishing this book, I felt I was left not so much with solutions to the problem of distributed cognition, but a better understanding of the (many) open questions therein. I do not offer this as a criticism - this kind of big picture is a valuable view for those outside the area, and the diversity of views would I think offer something to those working within the area. My main criticism of this work is that there is not a clear overview for someone new to the idea of distributed cognition - several chapters do a good job of providing a concise overview in their introduction, but the introductory chapter feels a little too general. It is itself a worthwhile contribution to the volume, but readers new to distributed cognition might do better to start with Chapter 8, which is a particular case study that provides a good overview. The final chapter again in one way provides a good summary of the work, but at the same time, refers to so many additional works with so little detail of them that I am left feeling that there is much more I should study to get a grasp on this subject. While the list of references appears comprehensive, I would have preferred a more detailed discussion in this volume than the need to hunt down these further resources - but maybe that is just laziness on the part of this reader.

I believe that JASSS readers will benefit from reading this volume, particularly those who have an interest in modelling (aspects of) cognition within their simulations. Even for those who are not explicitly interested in modelling cognition may find that particular sub-themes in this book strike a chord, such as the question of the bounds of the system to be modelled, or "naturalised" versus laboratory-based problem solving, and the discussions in these areas may provide useful insights. In summary, the book is a valuable resource as an overview on distributed cognition.

* References

HUTCHINS, E. (1995a). Cognition in the wild. Cambridge: MIT Press.

HUTCHINS, E. (1995b). How a cockpit remembers its speed. Cognitive Science, 19, 265-288.


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