Disturbing, this Distributing Cognition

For the umpteenth time, I yelled up the stairs to my teenaged daughter – the most unflappable human I knew. “Did you put the garbage out?” “Ok,” came the laconic response. “Ok? How is that an answer? Why do I have to remind you every week?” Minutes later, she bumbled down the stairs with a sigh, and went about her task. Uncomplaining, but judgmental in the way only teenaged girls can carry off.

In calmer times, I asked her a deeper question. I’d like to think I was calm, but I’m likely being kind in my historical rendering of the conversation. “Why do I have to remind you every week about the trash? You don’t seem to even know what day is trash day!”

“I know what day trash day is. It’s the day after you yell at me to take it out.”

That one stunned me, and has stayed with me in the intervening decades. It was the most honest expression of distributed cognition I heard, although I didn’t know the term at the time. Because I could be relied upon to remind her, she never took on the task to remember the day of the week that contained her chore. I would like to say that this behavior is not repeated in my marriage, where certain cognitive tasks are embodied in our relationship – often to the exasperation of my Bride, but I heard once that blogs should reflect truth.

A 2009 article bemoaned our shrinking hippocampus, the area of our brain that allows us to navigate spatial landscapes. The speculation is that our reliance on smart phones and vehicle GPS means that we are offloading cognitive processes into our environment – embodied cognition that is demonstrated when someone asks if you have the time. You say yes, even though what you mean to say is that you know how to learn the time. You say, ‘Yes, I know what time it is, as you look at your watch to learn the information.’ Even this example is dating me; how many still wear a watch when a time-keeping device connected to an atomic clock is sitting in our pockets (or in, gasp, holsters)?

It’s not just about navigation or trash. A friend yesterday used some email-to-text magic to ask if I had plans for this evening. I immediately texted back to indicate my lack of a social life. Midday, I noted there had been no response and texted again – “Plans? Thoughts?” No reply. It never occurred to me to try an alternate mode – he had texted, and I was unconsciously respecting that communications mode. When I considered the lack of response, I determined that he had good reason to be incommunicado. Talking with him this morning, I learned that through some glitch in the matrix, he never received my multiple replies. I presumed the communications channel was without flaw, and presumed a social reason for the silence. When did I forget how to dial a phone?

And no, I will not be attending a wine dinner this evening after all.

Fortunately, the brain is constantly re-wiring, re-writing its code. Microglial cells navigate our brains to prune redundant, poorly wired and obsolete synapses. I am making a logical leap here, presuming that these pruning cells are engaged in the process of distributed cognition (or the recovery from it), but it seems likely microglia play a part. This microglial cleaning is done, I should add, without your intervention. This is an ongoing Spring cleaning, but unlike the one where you stand on the stairs demanding your spouse reconsider trashing your old Yes album covers.

As a result of this constant re-wiring, for example, the hippocampus of the London cab driver is larger than yours, because of their onerous training: the requirement to memorize a 6 square mile patch centered on Charing Cross such that they know the optimal path between any two points therein, in any season. The requirements of their job led to a re-structuring of their brain. They cannot rely on a map or GPS, but must internalize this knowledge.

So you can expand your navigational sense, you can regain the ability to find your way from Shady Grove to Adams Morgan. You can re-learn what day the trash is picked up. But first, you need a strategy. What cognitive processes are best embodied in your environment, leaving your efficient brain to focus on ‘higher-order’ tasks? Perhaps GPS is a trustworthy object to replace your hippocampus. However: What processes have you offloaded, without thinking about it? And is that distributed cognition in good hands? Are you trusting the best objects/interactions with helping you to know? What did those Spring cleaning cells trim away last night as you slept? This last thought, without too much explanation, may give some of us reason to pause and reflect this weekend. Do enjoy.

Leave a Comment


Leave a Reply

Corey McCarren

Scary thought, technology physically altering our ability to do certain tasks well because we no longer rely on ourselves to do it. There’s probably already several sci-fi examples of it, and now with the shrinking hippocampus, a real world example. I do sometimes intentionally try to figure things out without technology, just because I don’t like being so reliant. That being said, I’m probably just as reliant as most.

Andrew Krzmarzick

An example of programming the brain: I regret early on in school that I hated memorizing. I felt as if I was not good at it and it took too much work…from algebraic formulas that I found short cuts to complete to picking shorter poems to recite in English or literature classes…and so over time, I have seen that my brain seems to be less and less inclined to remember…and technology today only enables my bad behavior. I just quickly capture my thoughts on my phone or computer and it can be out of my mind – no need to remember…but it hurts soft skills, like remembering names and birthdays and similar, important information.

And remembering those things is only as good as my ability to remember to put the “right information” and set the “repeat / reminder” functions…not sure if I trust myself in that regard 🙂

Ray MacNeil

Nice post John. Thought you were going to talk about unintended consequences. There’s a down side to everything, just our brains aren’t wired to go there when we see the next neat whiz-bang tool. And often because the unintended consequences are part of the complexity, we only see them retrospectively.

Love the daughter stories. So right! Love how you worked in the distributed cognition. Hadn’t thought of it in that sort of way. My daughters do that to me and I do that to my wife. I think we do it especially when the task is something we don’t want to do, unload the time mgmt part to someone else, hoping in some weird way that it will go away. And since I do more things I don’t want to do than my wife, I tend also to undertake this sort of behavior more frequently than she does.

As someone once said… I love the word indolece. It makes my laziness sound classy!!

Great post.