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Insightful thinking

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We trace how cognition arises beyond the skin. Experimental work on insight problem solving is used to examine how external artifacts can be used to reach the goal of assembling a ‘cheap necklace’. Instead of asking how insight occurs ‘in the head’, our participants in Experiment 1 can either draw solution attempts or manipulate real objects (specifically, chain links that make up a necklace). Even though performance with real chain links is significantly more successful than on paper, access to objects does not make this insight problem simple: objects themselves do not shape cognition. This challenges extended mind views. While failure often results from the inappropriate (to the current insight problem) application of hill-climbing, material artifacts can trigger solutions. In Experiment 2, we used ‘open link’ conditions of the concretized problem to prompt participants to act (or think). Solutions arrived via insight, serendipity, or trial-and-error. By investigating how objects are used, we show that they do more than supplement neural events. Rather, participants monitor and anticipate the effects of action (and thinking) within an organism-environment system. By analogy, language too draws on experience of monitoring real-time effects as bodily dynamics play out in a normative and cultural world. In engaging with public language, it is likely that verbal patterns function by constraining anticipatory (action-based) cognitive processes.
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Keywords: artifacts; distributed cognition; distributed language; extended mind; insight; problem solving

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: December 2, 2009

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