Cognitive Offloading

Evan F. Risko and Sam J. Gilbert, ‘Cognitive Offloading’, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 20 (2016), 676-88.

By cognitive offloading they mean ‘the use of physical action to alter the information processing requirements of a task so as to reduce cognitive demand’. It might be using your phone to remember appointments, or tilting your head to look at a rotated image. I see this as quite closely related to ideas about the extended mind or distributed cognition (for which as usual I direct you to Edinburgh’s History of Distributed Cognition project), and sure enough, Clark and Chalmers and others are cited, and the whole idea is seen as a special, tangible case of the larger phenomenon.
      Risko and Gilbert argue that we need to know more about cognitive offloading because of its growing presence in modern lives. It might be argued that wax tablets and notebooks and scratches on cave walls have always been there to help us extend our thinking power, but it’s also hard to deny that electronic devices are enabling and infiltrating our minds in unprecedented ways. And yet experimenting on these things might be difficult, they say, because experimental design usually seeks to control environments and, deliberately or not, to limit physical movement, so the usual flow of cognitive offloading may not reveal itself.
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They produce intriguing evidence of the ways in which both cognition and metacognition (that is, thinking about thinking; evaluating our thinking) are affected. The latter is important and perhaps unexpected: the experience of using other means to address cognitive burdens, and the prospect of doing so, can distort our self-assessments. So, for example, it has been shown that searching and finding facts online can lead people to believe they know more than they do, and to predict better performance in subsequent, unaided tests. It may or may not be a problem that ‘a human-internet transactive memory system can lead individuals to blur the distinction between what they know and what the internet knows’. It seems to me most worrying when I think about how we might lose track of how utterly reliant we become, thus leaving us completely incapacitated when the power goes down.
      Other results point in another direction. Participants who had access to the internet whenever they didn’t know answers to questions were more pessimistic about their future abilities than those who just had to stop at ‘don’t know’. Here they were less confident rather than more. This probably demonstrates how subtle the framing of questions needs to be when dealing with something so nuanced. But it also shows, as Risko and Gilbert say, that cognitive offloading isn’t just a matter of shoring up some fallible lower-level elements of cognition; it has consequences for higher-level ones too.
      So: we need to think carefully about whether offloading should be encouraged or discouraged, and in which contexts. There’s a world of difference between a worry bead and an abacus (though some elements of construction are kind of similar): but there are pluses and minuses in both cases.

The question for me as usual is whether there are ways in which literature can help enrich the questions and answers. I would like to suggest two very different ways in which the idea of cognitive offloading might arise, the first in a novel, and the second in a collection of poems.
      Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry is a novel by the great maverick experimentalist of the British novel, B.S. Johnson (1933-1973). The title character decides to manage his life as an exercise in double-entry book-keeping, keeping track of where he feels he has been rewarded and wronged, and offering recompense in either case. The destruction he wreaks (society is, after all, kind of annoying) escalates out of control. This is a pretty clear case of cognitive offloading: Johnson has portrayed a character who devolves his moral accounting into a form that requires balancing. In combination with the imbalances of his personality, this creates an easy path towards horrendous acts. The novel hypothesizes a very extreme case of what Risko and Gilbert are discussing, but there is a shared interest in lost bearings, where the offloaded thinking loses its grounding. A closer analysis would reveal some more nuanced propositions about what such a stretched version of the theme might reveal. It was made into a film quite recently, which for some reason I haven’t seen.

My other suggestion is a lot less obvious. I have spent a lot of time thinking about the enigma of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. My general feeling is that in a variety of ways these 154 poems map out subtleties and complexities in the workings of our minds. The idea of cognitive offloading might offer a context in which to understand certain qualities. Why are they repetitive, restlessly returning to certain key ideas? And why do they seem to reveal a great deal about their speaker (and/or their author) while also seeming to hold a great deal back? Today’s answer is: because they are exploring the way that a form like the sonnet sequence might arise from, and/or trace, the processes of cognitive offloading. Each sonnet is a form in which to think, and also a form in which to externalise a bit of thinking, distancing it somewhat.

E-mail me at rtrl100[at]cam.ac.uk

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