Distributed Cognition

 Historical Origins
Edwin Hutchins
“The theory of distributed cognition was originally developed by
Edwin Hutchins in order to provide a more balanced theoretical treatment of problem solving in real work situations and to supply a new framework for cognitive science. The seminal study (Hutchins 1995a) comprises an investigation of a ship’s navigation. This is a task that, in modern western society, is carried out by teams of sailors working with various types of artefacts. Hutchins describes how individuals use tools to generate and maintain representational states, which are then propagated through the system to finally produce a “fix” of the ship’s location.
In another study (1995b) Hutchins investigates an airline cockpit as a distributed cognitive system. An airline cockpit “remembers its speeds” through complex interactions between the pilots and various representational devices, tools and media. Hutchins shows that the cognitive properties of the distributed system depend on the physical properties of the representational media in which it is implemented. Further, “a complete theory of individual human memory would not be sufficient to understand that which we wish to understand because so much of the memory function takes place outside the individual”  (Harris, 2004).

Core Concepts

The goal of distributed cognition is to understand the organization of functional systems. These systems are composed of individuals and artefacts; therefore, distributed cognition supporters don’t only view the “cognitive processes…[as] confined to the skin and skull of [any one] individual” (Hutchins). This broader unit of analysis is a main difference between distributed cognition and other theories that only see cognition within the mind of the individual.

Another characteristic of this theory is the propagation and transformation of information. Propagation is achieved through the use of artefacts. These artefacts or tools can include both material items (paper, pencil, calculator, etc.) and non-material items, such as language. Transformation occurs from the input of any one individual and can change the direction of the functional system. A key point to remember is that the cognitive properties of a functional system can be different from the cognitive properties of the individual members.

Studies regarding distributed cognition have noticed three types of distribution of cognitive processes:

  • across members of a social group
  • between internal and external structures
  • distribution through time (earlier events can transform later events).

Practical Understanding

The ETEC 512 group cognition, or functional system, is larger and more in depth than its individuals alone. Propagation of information is achieved through the use of collaboration tools like discussion threads, google docs, blogs, etc., to help hold and/or communicate information. Each member can contribute a new piece of information or correct information that has been posted, thus transforming the information until the final project is complete. The final project represents the culminating efforts of the distributed cognition paradigm: group members, artefacts (i.e. readings, google docs, blogs, etc.), space (i.e. geographic locations) and time.

Key Definitions

Distributed Cognition (dcog): Distributed cognition is a branch of cognitive science that proposes that cognition and knowledge are not confined to an individual; rather, it is distributed across objects, individuals, artefacts, and tools in the environment. (http://www.learning-theories.com/distributed-cognition-dcog.html)

Unit of Analysis: the major entity that is analyzed. For instance, any of the following could be a unit of analysis: individuals, groups, artefacts (i.e. books, photos, newspapers), geographical units (i.e. town, census tract, state), and social interactions (i.e. dyadic relations, divorces, arrests)

Functional System: the system composed of individuals and artefacts

Artefacts: an artificial product or effect observed in a natural system (i.e. language, calculators, concepts, etc.)

Collaborative Manipulations: the process by which we take advantage of artefacts designed by others, sharing ideas across space & time


Rogers, Y. (1997). A Brief Introduction to Distributed Cognition. Retreived October 19, 2011, at: http://mcs.open.ac.uk/yr258/papers/dcog/dcog-brief-intro.pdf

Hutchins, E. (2000). Distributed Cognition. Retreived October 19, 2011, at: http://eclectic.ss.uci.edu/~drwhite/Anthro179a/DistributedCognition.pdf

Harris, S. (2004). Distributed Cognition. Retreived October 19, 2011, at: http://mcs.open.ac.uk/yr258/dist_cog/

O’Donnell, A., D’Amico, M. Schmidt, R.F., Reeve, J., Smith, J. Educational Psychology: Reflection for Action. Missassauga: John Whiley and Sons, Canada.

Photo References:

Edwin Hutchins: Retrieved October 19, 2011 at: cmapspublic.ihmc.us

Distributed Cognition (navel photo): Retrieved October 18, 2011, at: jareddonovan.com

Distributed Cognition Concept Map: Retrieved OCtober 21, 2011, at: cmapspublic3.ihmc.us






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