DEEDS: Putting minds back together

Cognition as dynamical, embodied, extended, distributed and situated
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Every model has philosophical assumptions, even if they are not made explicit. In Metaphors in Mind, Penny Tompkins and I summerised the principles underlying the practice of Symbolic Modelling. These ideas are part of what makes Symbolic Modelling a model of David Grove’s work, and not just a description of what he did. 

Limited by space we left much to be gleaned from between the lines.  As a result, during two and a half years between 2001 and 2003 we devoted each of the Developing Group days (our bi-monthly advanced study group) to making our philosophical assumptions more explicit.1

Theoretical Underpinnings

Then in 2006 Judy Rees asked me an interesting question. What are the theoretical underpinnings of Symbolic Modelling and what fields of study have had the greatest influence? I came up with six headings:

  1. Experiential Constructivism (as a core philosophy)
  2. Cognitive Linguistics (the academic study of metaphor, cognition and language)
  3. Evolutionary dynamics (as a model of emergent phenomena and the change process)
  4. Self-organising systems theory (as a model of human cognition and other complex systems)
  5. A developmental perspective (as an across-time perspective)
  6. Modelling (as the principal methodology of practice).
Judy turned my ramblings into an article.2 Support for what were seriously radical ideas before the turn of the last century has been growing as shortcomings in the ‘standard’ ways of thinking about the relationships between mind, body, behaviour and the world have become apparent. The notions of a representational, computational, disembodied, self-contained, and literal-thinking brain running the show have been slowly giving way to more systemic ideas. Don’t get the idea that the alternative ways of thinking are anywhere near becoming mainstream – they are not. However, they are gaining ground.


Because the ideas that have dominated discussion and research for the last fifty or more years are pervasive, it takes a tremendous effort to continually drag myself out of the prevailing cosmology within I was raised, and view the world differently.

Earlier this year I agreed to give a presentation to the NLPtCA Annual Conference. The conference marked the 20th anniversary of the founding of the first official body in the UK dedicated to Neuro-Linguistic psychotherapy and counselling.3 It was extra special for Penny and me since we were not only present at the organisation’s birth, we were part of the midwifery team.

To mark the occasion I decided to do something unusual. My talk, ‘Neuroscience: Myth, Metaphor and Marketing’ was a polemic against the accelerating trend of over-stretching of contemporary neuroscience findings beyond justifiable limits. While researching the topic I discovered I was not alone in being exasperated by many of the claims being made by people who think that attaching ‘neuro’ to the front of something and showing a pretty picture of an fMRI scan justifies wild speculation dressed up as science.

For a second time I was delighted to find that Raymond Tallis was way ahead of me.3 The subtitle of his book Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity summed up my concerns nicely. I was particularly delighted because not only had I found a catchy label for my concerns – “Neuromania” – Tallis also introduced me to a new acronym, DEEDS, being adopted by a growing number of scientists, philosophers and researchers for an alternative way to conceive of ‘mind’. It was comforting to know others shared views alined with those Penny and I had been groping towards when we wrote Metaphors in Mind.

DEEDS is a collection of overlapping theories that see cognition as dynamical, embodied, extended, distributed and situated. As Tallis puts it:

They seek to develop a cognitive science in which brain, body and world intertwine, and “beyond-the-skin” factors are accorded fully paid-up cognitive status.5

The five aspects of DEEDS are mutually supporting. They are not to be taken as separate entities. The whole points of a DEEDS approach is to put back together that which has been taken apart by a reductionist approach to human cognition. Philosopher Joel Walmsley sums up DEEDS:

Central to this development is the idea that the mind is essentially ‘‘situated’’. Embodied, embedded and distributed approaches try to understand cognitive systems with reference to the bodies, environments and social structures in which they are physically situated. Dynamical cognitive science tries to do justice to the temporal situatedness of cognition, by emphasising the importance of time and timing. Both aspects of this theoretical reorientation have gone hand in hand with a novel and intriguing set of example phenomena that advocates of the DEEDS approach regard as paradigmatically cognitive. Whereas classical cognitive science was concerned with abilities such as chess-playing and logic-crunching, many now see abilities such as sensorimotor co-ordination and obstacle avoidance as central.6

Gregory Bateson must be dancing on a head of a pin singing “I told you so, I told you so”.


The next blog will explain more about what DEEDS stands for and what this way of thinking means for us as facilitators. See More Good Deeds.

1 The notes that accompanied those heady days documented our thinking at the time and are available at cleanlanguage.co.uk/articles/categories/The-Developing-Group/

2 My third draft (1 June 2011) can be downloaded from: Theoretical Underpinnings of Symbolic Modelling v3.pdf

Judy Rees’ second draft (4 May 2008) is available at: cleanchange.co.uk/cleanlanguage/2008/08/09/theoretical-underpinnings-of-symbolic-modelling/

3 NLPtCA nlptca.com (and its precursor ANLP-PCS) have been accrediting members of UKCP (UK Council for Psychotherapy psychotherapy.org.uk) since its inception in 1992.

4 I expressed my initial gratitude for Raymond Tallis’ Michelangelo’s Finger in two blogs:

5 Raymond Tallis, Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity, Acumen, 2011, p.352.

6 Walmsley credits Leslie Marsh for suggesting the DEEDS acronym: Joel Walmsley, Methodological situatedness; or, DEEDS worth doing and pursuing, Cognitive Systems Research 9 (2008) 150–159.  Download from: ucc.ie/jwalmsley/ms.pdf.

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