Incubation, Internalism and Distributed Cognition: an e-Discussion
Following the Kingston 2010 Meeting on Distributed Cognition and Problem Solving, there was brief email discussion about DCog and Incubation effects. (Incubation is when a problem is solved readily after time away from the problem.) An exchange between Fred Vallee-Tourangeau and me is shown below.
I liked the incubation gauntlet( i.e., challenge issued at DCog meeting for a DCog account of Incubation), but if right from the start the theoretical perspective doesn’t allow for representations to be distributed over internal and external resources, then a distributed cognition perspective will not be able to rise to the challenge. For my money, incubation ‘works’ for stochastic/aleatory reasons – leaving a problem aside, the representation decays. Confronting the problem again, the representation is put together again, constructing and drawing upon a slightly different interpretation of the problem (the semantic activation spreading slightly differently), recruiting slightly different operators maybe, and out of that chancy configuration may surface a more productive problem representation with possibly more traction to get you out of the impasse. But this assembly process, from a distributed cognition perspective, could also recruit external resources, and in fact, you may double the possibilities by re-assembling and re-coupling internal and external parts to form a problem representation (or perhaps you double the noise!)
Perhaps you have heard me talk about the Watson episode in the Double Helix (or you read it yourself) about how he put the base pairs together and discovered how the helix was held together. Here’s the passage:
“When I got to our office….I quickly cleared away the papers from the desk top so that I would have a large, flat surface on which to form pairs of bases…Though I initially went back to my like-like prejudices, I saw all too well that they led nowhere….I began shifting the bases in and out of various other pairing possibilities. Suddenly I became aware that a [A-T] pair held together by two hydrogen bonds was identical in shape to a pair [G-C] pair held together by at least two hydrogen bonds. All the hydrogen bonds seems to form naturally; no fudging was required to make the two types of base pairs identical in shape. Upon his arrival Francis did not get more than halfway through the door before I let loose that the answer to everything was in our hands”. (Watson, 1968, pp.123-125).
The final understanding gels in Watson’s mind, but the external scaffolding necessary for him to achieve insight was both strategic and I suspect possibly opportunistic (is it possible to rule that random movements might have led to felicitous configurations?).
You probably know Peter Cheng, and perhaps the work he did with Herb Simon in the early/mid 90’s on the importance of multiple representations (diagrammatic/mathematical) in scientific discovery. I saw him in DC at CogSci 08. We talked a bit about some of my work with Wason’s rule discovery task using multiple representations (people are more likely to discover the rule and formulate more pertinent hypotheses when they have access to both a graphical and algebraic representation. In light of his writings, I thought he’d be particularly fond of the DCog perspective. But he is staunch internalist. He does not deny that information format and annotations can help, but he argues that all the interesting psychology takes place in the head, not as a result of the interaction with reified projections and artefacts, cognitive or otherwise.
Incubation effects as results of “beneficial” forgetting that brings about changes in problem representations is a theory of some standing and indeed was put forward by Simon among others. This does seem to be a thoroughly internalist explanation.
A role for environmental cues has been incorporated into some approaches, but the cues have to be processed internally and lead to changes in the internal representation.
The Watson case of insight, while manipulating a concrete model, is interesting as an example of insight following overt trial and error accomplishment of a solution, but not really a case of an incubation effect?
From the internalist point of view, concrete material/models are helpful because they facilitate exploration that would otherwise overload working memory.
This seems to be pretty intra-organismic.
I am inclined to a rather fence-sitting view that some important cognitive processes (e.g., incubation) are essentially in-the-head and others are distributed across heads and across the environment (e.g., group problem solving with external memory aids)?