School of Computer Science and Informatics, University College Dublin
-“We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us” – Not only our thoughts, concepts, and cognitive processes are firmly shaped and rooted in our biological constitution, but also “lifeless material things” merge with our inner self.
In his recent article “Embodied Cognition and the Magical Future of Interaction Design”, Canadian cognitive scientist David Kirsch provides an accessible survey of state-of-the-art research on human cognition in relation to tools. As linguist George Lakoff and philosopher Mark Johnson have argued, this major scientific paradigm aims at overcoming the idea of rationality that has permeated our culture since the Enlightenment. Starting from McLuhan’s famous statement “we shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us”, Kirsch outlines the key tenets of embodied cognition and its broad implications. According to the paradigm, not only our thoughts, concepts, and cognitive processes are firmly shaped and rooted in our biological constitution, but also “lifeless material things” merge with our inner self.
Embodied cognition claims that thought is not confined to the brain, but extends and relies on our body parts and external objects, enabling us literally to “think with things”. When we interact with a tool, we rapidly absorb it into our cognitive apparatus, and we enter a new “enactive landscape” with novel affordances that we could not imagine without the tool. As psychologist Abraham Maslow famously put it, “if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” Tools impact on our motor system, on our synaesthetic perception, and our conceptualisation of reality, redrawing the boundaries of our world. For the chef, a kitchen can constitute many “cooking landscapes,” depending on their cooking style, the course being prepared, and the specific tool in their hand.
The interface between the human and the tool is difficult to identify. As anthropologist Gregory Bateson pointed out, a blind man with a stick illustrates the problem. “Where does the blind man’s self begin? At the tip of the stick? At the handle of the stick? Or at some point halfway up the stick?” From a cybernetic perspective, these intuitive boundaries are wrong, as both entities become part of an information system made up of the man and his tool.
Kirsch makes his case compelling by illustrating several instances of thinking directly with the body. To learn a complex dance sequence, professional dancers make a physical model of it by dancing through it. Such models are imprecise and distorted in particular ways to explore specific aspects of the object being studied. Similarly, violinists may rehearse a passage by working on their bowing while lowering precision on their left fingers. In this sense, the body becomes a central support of the learning process.
These lines of cognitive research bear high relevance for interaction design and human-computer interaction. How far can we “rewire” ourselves into tools? What are the limits of this neuro-adaptation? Why do certain interfaces feel “natural” and disappear from our perception, and others do not? Even tentative answers, of course, will require a lot of work. Although Kirsch alludes to a “magical future” of interaction design, he fails to clarify how these insights can feed back into actual interfaces of information systems, and offers vague and cautious predictions. For anybody interested in philosophy, psychology, and human-computer interaction, the findings surveyed by Kirsh offer much food for multi-disciplinary, embodied thoughts.
- Bateson, Gregory. Steps to an ecology of mind: Collected essays in anthropology, psychiatry, evolution, and epistemology. University of Chicago Press, 1972.
- Lakoff, George and Johnson, Mark. Philosophy in the flesh: The embodied mind and its challenge to Western thought. Basic Books (AZ), 1999.
- Kirsh, David. Embodied Cognition and the Magical Future of Interaction Design. ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction (TOCHI) Volume 20 Issue 1, March 2013, Article no. 3.