Memory as a Test Case for Distributed Cognition

Memory as a Test Case for Distributed Cognition

Prof John Sutton
Macquarie University


This online lecture has two aims. First, I explain the link between theories of distributed cognition, on the one hand, and contemporary currents in the sciences of memory, on the other. The resulting framework for studying distributed ecologies of remembering is, I suggest, a promising basis for interdisciplinary research. Secondly, I show specifically what this framework offers for research in history and the humanities.

After a general overview of ideas about distributed memory, the lecture addresses four features of memory: the distinctive kinds of memory, the constructive nature of remembering, the development of memory, and the functions of remembering. It then develops one particular version of the idea of distributed cognition, underlining the complementarity between integrated but disparate neural, bodily, social, and material resources. Putting these two independent sets of ideas together, three layers or forms of distributed ecologies of memory are described: first and in most detail, the case of socially distributed remembering; then the idea of the cognitive life of things; and finally the internalization of cognitive and cultural artifacts. The lecture concludes with a brief discussion of the place of history in this interdisciplinary framework for studying cognitive ecologies of remembering.


Further questions

  1. Do we need strong extended mind thesis rather than more modest ideas of embedded cognition?

  2. Can’t human memory operate fully outside distributed systems, isolated from artifacts and other people?

  3. How can we best study the integrated operation of social and technological-material processes at once?

  4. What methods, skills, and kinds of collaboration are needed to study changing ecologies of remembering?


Essential Readings


Further readings

  • Donald, M. (1990). Origins of the Modern Mind: three stages in the evolution of cognition and culture. Harvard University Press.

  • Fivush, R. & Catherine H. (eds). 2003. Autobiographical Memory and the Construction of a Narrative Self: developmental and cultural perspectives. Lawrence Erlbaum.

  • Harris, C.B., Amanda J.B., John Sutton, & Paul G.K. (2014). Couples as socially distributed cognitive systems: remembering in everyday social and material contexts. Memory Studies 7 (3), 285-297.

  • Hutchins, E. (2011). Enculturating the Supersized Mind. Philosophical Studies 152 (3), 437-446.

  • Martin, L. & Jesper S. (eds). 2011. Past Minds: studies in cognitive historiography. Equinox.

  • Michaelian, K. & John S. (2013). Distributed cognition and memory research: history and current directions. Review of Philosophy and Psychology 4 (1), 1-24.

  • Sutton, J., Celia B.H., Paul G. Keil, & Amanda J.B.. 2010. The Psychology of Memory, the Extended Mind, and Socially Distributed Remembering. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences 9, 521-560.

  • Wang, Q. (2013). The Autobiographical Self in Time and Culture. Oxford University Press.

  • Wegner, D. (1986). Transactive Memory: a contemporary analysis of the group mind. In B. Mullen & G. Goethals (eds), Theories of Group Behavior. Springer, 185–208.

  • Memory’ in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.