Psychology students often have to write research papers on distributed cognition. There are many ways to approach distributed cognition.
Distributed cognition is a psychological theory first devised by Edwin Hutchins as an attempt to reach a better understanding of situations in the workplace. Hutchins' theory maintains that cognition (thinking skills) remains a computational process, but one that is distributed in the environment of the situation. Under this system of situated cognition, individuals interact with machinery and other individuals, and thus cognition results from the integration of both internal and external phenomena.
Despite some amount of disagreement on the specific methods of information processing that take place during distributed cognition, researchers have reached some consensus on specific aspects of information processes that are important for understanding this action overall. Specifically, distributed cognition generally includes the following:
- Assumption of Limited Capacity - The amount of information that can be processed by the system is constrained in some very important ways. Bottlenecks, or restrictions in the flow and processing of information, occur at very specific points.
- A Control Mechanism is Required - Not all of the processing capacity of the system is available; an executive function that oversees this process will use up some of this capability. When one is learning a task in a new environment, the executive function requires more processing power than when one is doing a routine task or is in a familiar environment.
- A Two-Way Flow of Information - Information is processed and released at the same time such that the individual can produce an integrated understanding of an event or action.
- Information Processing is Genetic - Information processing in each stage of human development has an innate quality which suggests that it is maintained by internal genetic control.
Information Processing and Distributed Cognition
In the context of information processing, both learning and distributed cognition are employed. With regard to the issue of learning, it is possible that the information presented to the individual will serve as the basis for the actions. With respect to the issue of cognition, the issue of information processing draws on the specific implements of cognition to help the individual make sense of the particular external stimuli that is being encountered. In the instance of information processing, one can clearly see the synthesis of cognition and learning. Information processing allows both learning and cognition to occur simultaneously.
Unlike traditional cognitive theory, distributed cognition holds the notion that development of new behaviors thinking is a process that takes place, or is distributed, across different parts of the brain. Distributed cognition frequently analyzes workplace environments, wherein real practices, such as constant interface between human beings and technology, lead to problem-solving. This new system of interaction creates cognitive processes that are unique and different from the individuals within the environment.
Distributed cognition relies upon the idea that information happens during the interaction between human and environment. The human being will bring to the environment his or her own memories and knowledge to the technology or group situation. The outside phenomena are referred to as the ecological elements of the cognitive system. Cognitive processes under this theory can and will transform over time through further interaction with a group or technology. By understanding distributed cognition, the functioning of a society can be better understood.
In this context as well the dynamic interaction between learning and cognition can clearly be seen. The individual is exposed to a new stimulus that requires the individual to take information that has been learned and process it in such a manner that reasoning for the present situation is presented. Through this process the individual can learn new information and further utilize cognitive processes to store and understand this new information. Thus, in the process of reasoning, learning and cognition must occur simultaneously. Without the constant interaction of these two processes, the individual would remain at a deficit unable to fully understand the implications of a decision in a particular situation.