16th Jan 2020: The Extended Mind talk and tour at Talbot Rice Gallery by James Clegg

Come along to the Talbot Rice Gallery (The University of Edinburgh, South Bridge, Edinburgh EH8 9YL) on 16th Jan 2020 from 2 – 4 pm for a leisurely introduction to the ideas of Distributed Cognition by Doug, lunch, and a tour by James…

Angelo Plessas, ‘Karma Dome’, 2019 (interior). Installation view, ‘The Extended Mind’, 2019. Image courtesy Talbot Rice Gallery, The University of Edinburgh
Angelo Plessas, ‘Karma Dome’, 2019 (interior). Installation view, ‘The Extended Mind’, 2019. Image courtesy Talbot Rice Gallery, The University of Edinburgh

Bullet points of what you would like to talk about:

  • An introduction to the key themes of Distributed Cognition by Doug Cairns, Professor of Classics.
  • Lunch with a discussion about how we all use our bodies and the world to extend the capacities of our brains, whether orientating ourselves, remembering things, navigating or calculating.
  • A tour of The Extended Mind exhibition – including the work of 12 contemporary artists – at Talbot Rice Gallery, led by curator James Clegg.


A few paragraphs on your subject:

The Extended Mind is based on the idea that our bodies, objects, language, institutions, other people and environments, expand our capacity to think, feel and orient ourselves in the world. This idea, that cognition is not simply something that takes place in the brain, is often called distributed cognition. A curatorial and academic endeavour, the exhibition grows from a collaboration between Talbot Rice Gallery and a research project called The History of Distributed Cognition.
The History of Distributed Cognition (2014-2018) aimed to show the relevance of distributed cognition to the arts and humanities. It revealed links to practices and ideas throughout Western Europe, from classical antiquity through to the twentieth century. The Extended Mind exhibition asks how this relates to contemporary art practice.
Across the work of 12 international artists it includes videos of robots that learn through embodied interactions; sculptures that reveal our cognitive relationship with objects; critical engagements with technocratic forms of anonymous and distributed labour; vicarious trips to the Amazon jungle; and artificial intelligence and spiritualist responses to the internet age. It invites you on journeys to other real and imagined places, demonstrating how art plays a vital role in scaffolding new forms of understanding.
Distributed cognition draws on ideas in philosophy, cognitive science, psychology, linguistics and neuroscience that attribute cognitive roles to the brain, body and world. Since it accords cognitive roles to the body and world, the perspective it provides on the mind and human nature is more inclusive and encompassing than depictions of the mind in Cartesian, neurocentric or postmodern theories. Distributed cognition is not one single theory, but instead covers an intertwined group of competing and sometimes conflicting theories, which also are known collectively as ‘4E cognition’:

  • Embodied cognition: cognitive states and processes are routinely shaped in fundamental ways by bodily forms, movements, states and processes.
  • Embedded cognition: external resources (such as tools or technology) act as noncognitive aids to an internal thinking system located in the brain; so, while the external resources enable cognition, they are not themselves counted as cognitive.
  • Extended cognition: a coupled system of external resources, bodily movements and in-the-head processing constitutes the thinking agent; all of these factors count as cognitive.
  • Enactive cognition: cognition is enacted (unfolds) through looping sensorimotor interactions between the agent and its environment, implying a close relationship between perception and action.

All four Es feature a social dimension, as thought and experience often depend, in complex ways, on the external ‘resources’ provided by other people, social structures and cultural institutions.

Installation view, ‘The Extended Mind’, 2019. Image courtesy Talbot Rice Gallery, The University of Edinburgh
Installation view, ‘The Extended Mind’, 2019. Image courtesy Talbot Rice Gallery, The University of Edinburgh

The History of Distributed Cognition project brought to the fore new or under-explored themes in distributed cognition. Also highlighted was sharing across periods and cultures, particularly in terms of how distributed notions of human cognition are expressed.
The Extended Mind features the work of 12 leading international artists, whose works provide new ways of thinking about the relation between mind and world. Their works offer imaginative and diverse reflections on distributed cognition in general and specifically highlight some of the themes that have newly come to the fore through HDC research, such as:

  • Constructed environments are also niches for scaffolding thought.
  • Cognitive science often focuses on distribution as a way of enhancing cognition, but distribution is not always beneficial.
  • Artworks produce new experiences by deliberately using material artefacts to scaffold and interrogate our automatic cognitive and affective responses.
  • Distributed memory is not simply a matter of data retrieval. It is a complex process that involves emotional and symbolic understanding.
  • The creative role of enactive processes in art.
  • Our bodies and technologies help us to achieve new scales and modes of knowledge that are otherwise beyond our comprehension.

This non-exhaustive list indicates just a few of the ways in which the exhibition intends to challenge your beliefs about, and sense of, where your mind ends and the world begins. More generally, the exhibition reveals ways in which artefacts and artworks extend our biological cognitive capacities and draw social culture and the physical and virtual worlds into the creative process.
By combining strengths in the arts and humanities with knowledge from the sciences we can imagine and create new ways of understanding our minds and highlight the ways in which artworks and cultural artefacts support and extend our cognitive capacities.
The Extended Mind raises awareness of the array of internal and external resources and environments that contribute to the ways we think and (as with the HDC project) importantly brings to the fore some of the personal, political and ethical issues predicated on that realization, whilst also highlighting their relevance to our current time

A few paragraphs about you:

Doug researches Greek society and ethics, especially the emotions, and especially as these are reflected in Greek epic, tragedy, and lyric poetry. He graduated with MA (Hons) in Classics, University of Glasgow, in 1983 and received the PhD in Greek, University of Glasgow, in 1987. He has been Lecturer in Greek, University of St Andrews, 1986; Post-doctoral Fellow, Leverhulme Trust, Georg-August Universität, Göttingen, 1987-8; Lecturer in Classics, University of Otago, 1988-92; Lecturer/Senior Lecturer in Classics, University of Leeds, 1992-9; Lecturer/Senior Lecturer in Classics, University of Glasgow, 1999-2004. He took up the Chair of Classics at Edinburgh on 1 September 2004 and served as Head of Classics 2004-5 and Head of School from 2005-8.
James is Curator for Talbot Rice Gallery. Passionate about contemporary art he has curated and helped to curate lots of exhibitions for the gallery since 2010. Other exhibitions James has curated include John Akomfrah’s Vertigo Sea (21 October 2017 – 27 January 2018) and Stephen Sutcliffe’s Sex Symbols in Sandwich Signs (28 July – 30 September 2017). He also writes occasionally as an art critic for Art Review and Art Monthly.

What free internet knowledge resources would you recommend to others if they wish to explore your chosen theme further?

The Extended Mind exhibition guide is freely available online at: https://www.trg.ed.ac.uk/sites/default/files/2019-11/THE%20EXTENDED%20MIND%20A5%20Event%20Guide%20SPREADS.pdf
The History of Distributed Cogniton website – including lectures, seminars and other information – can be accessed here: https://www.hdc.ed.ac.uk/
Listen to Doug summarising his research in a nutshell here: https://media.ed.ac.uk/media/1_4prpnpz6

What are your weblinks?

Read and watch more about The Extended Mind here: https://www.trg.ed.ac.uk/exhibition/extended-mind

 Save as PDF