More good DEEDS

Bringing forth a world through the process of living
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My second blog about DEEDS [see part 1] delves deeper into a group of ideas which pose an alternative to the standard computational theory of mind. Lawrence Shapiro describes “the domain of standard cognitive science” as:

Fairly circumscribed (perception, memory, attention, language, problem solving, learning). Its commitments to various theoretical entities, are overt: cognition involves algorithmic processes upon symbolic representations. (Embodied Cognition, 2011 p. 2)

DEEDS on the other hand characterises mind as dynamical, embodied, extended, distributed and situated. To understand the DEEDS approach you need a wider view of cognition. I like Fritjof Capra’s:

Cognition, then, is not a representation of an independently existing world, but rather a continual bringing forth a world through the process of living. The interactions of a living system with its environment are cognitive interactions, and the process of living itself is a process of cognition. (The Web of Life, 1996 p. 260)

Or put more simply by Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela:

All doing is knowing and all knowing is doing. (The Tree of Knowledge, 1992 p.27)

Let’s look at DEEDS one term at a time; remembering that the concepts are mutually supportive rather than mutually exclusive:

Embodied cognition proposes that mind emerges not only from brain activity but from an interaction of brain, body, and world. This means a cognitive system needs a body to provide the ‘inputs’ and ‘outputs’. It means the whole body is an active part of the cognitive system. And more than that, as Teed Rockwell puts it, it means: “Even the most primitive, subjective, qualitative aspects of human experience are embodied in the brain-body-world nexus” (quoted in Raymond Tallis, Aping Mankind, 2011 p. 352).  Problems arise when we attempt to partition that nexus.

Extended cognition can be stated simply: a cognitive system extends beyond the boundaries of the individual. It makes total sense to lay people but somehow not to many cognitive scientists. We use diaries and shopping lists to supplement our memory, we use signposts to tell us which way to go, and of course we use computers to increase our processing capacities. In each case, the extended-mind hypothesis maintains that if what is external-to-our-body plays a functional role it ought to be considered part of cognition, rather than merely an object of cognition.

Distributed cognition doesn’t just mean that neural networks – structurally the same as those in the cranium – are distributed throughout the body. No, distributed cognition recognises the importance of social activity and that cognitive process are spread across members of social groups. Think: The Wisdom of Crowds (James Surowiecki, 2004) and The Smart Swarm (Peter Miller, 2011).

Situated cognition emphasises that mental activity is dependent on the situation or context in which it occurs, whether that is relatively local (as in the case of embodiment) or relatively global (as in the case of historical and cultural environments). Rather than merely providing the source of input and the arena for output, context is seen as intrinsic.1

Taken together DEEDS provides a challenge to internalism. The upshot of conceptualising mind as dynamical, embodied, extended, distributed and situated is that as long as something is functionally part of a cognitive process, it does not matter where it is located, even something as ‘internal’ and ‘personal’ as a belief. As Andy Clark and David Chalmers put it:

The moral is that when it comes to belief, there is nothing sacred about skull and skin. What makes some information count as a belief is the role it plays, and there is no reason why the relevant role can only be played from inside the body. (quoted in Walmsley)

Clark humorously sums up the new perspective with the title of his book, Supersizing the Mind (2008).

A whole lot of E’s

Although Leslie Marsh designated the two E’s in DEEDS as ‘embodied’ and ‘extended’ he might just as well have said the E’s represent ‘embedded’ or ‘ecological’ or ‘emergent’ or ‘enactive’:

Embedded – The idea that the brain is embedded in the body and the body is embedded in the physical and social world. By this definition, ‘embedded’ is roughly synonymous with ‘situated’.2

Ecological – Gregory Bateson’s hypothesis that minds are best understood if we regard them as biological systems in which the interdependency of relationships within and between organisms and with their environment is considered primary. Bateson maintained that considering parts without taking into account the context of the larger system of which they are a part is not only poor science it can also be pathological.

Emergent – the process by which interactions at simpler levels of organisation give rise to novel or more complex properties that are more than the sum of the components. Another way of saying this is that ‘network effects’ emerge out of bottom-up processes. Whether the effects are advantageous or not depends on your point of view.

Enactive – Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson and Eleanor Rosch’s put action at the centre of cognition. They say the term was selected “to emphasize the growing conviction that cognition is not the representation of a pregiven world by a pregiven mind but is rather the enactment of a world and a mind on the basis of a history of the variety of actions that a being in the world performs.” (The Embodied Mind, 1993 p. 9)

DEEDS and learning to spell

Once out of the straight jacket of the current orthodox stand-alone brain models, what DEEDS theorists and researchers are proposing is not so radical after all. In fact, many of the features have been there all along but they have been obscured by the narrow focus of standard cognitive science. For example, for the NLP Spelling Strategy (Robert Dilts)3 to be learned and successfully applied it requires more than the ‘cognitive strategy’. The ‘more’ can illustrated using a DEEDS approach:


If you observe a skilled facilitator of the spelling strategy you’ll see that they don’t teach – they facilitate. They are continually responding to the learner’s responses. Moment by moment the facilitator adjusts what they are doing and saying so that they are encouraging conditions whereby the learner(s) can acquire the model for themselves. They and the learners are in a systemic dance. Both are ‘leading’ and ‘following’ each other. This is clearest when the process has to be adapted to accommodate an individual learner’s way of learning.

Another dynamical part of the process not contained in the basic formula is the amount of repetition and the verification of learning required.4 Timing and feedback are vital aspects of the learning process.


It is easy to see the role played by paper, coloured pens and correctly spelled words written on pieces of card.


A key part of the spelling strategy is for the learner to acquire ‘body signals’ which let him or her know that a word is spelled correctly or not, even if they do not how or why.

And, holding the correctly spelled words in certain places in relation to the learner’s body (usually up and to their left) is itself a form of embodiment. As soon as anything has a form it is embodied and all bodies have a place in space.


Just think of the role played by the facilitator. All the skills they have, in particular their ability to build and maintain a relationship with the learner, and their intimate knowledge of the model are vital parts of the acquiring process. And it is not just the explicit learner who is learning; the facilitator too acquires more experience every time.


What value does society in general, and the particular situation of the learner (home, school, job) attach to good spelling and, even more important, to good spellers? Then there is the role played by peers, especially in response to a learner’s ‘failure’. And it makes all the difference whether a learner wants to improve their ability to spell.

Even this simple example shows how each of the features highlighted by the DEEDS approach play a vital role in the cognitive process we call ‘learning’.

My top 10

To conclude, my top 10 features of a DEEDS way of thinking is that mind and cognition involve:

  1. A physical presence whose form both enables and limits possible cognitions. A body is more than a mere Dawkinian “vehicle”, it is a co-driver.
  2. Mutually interacting internal and external structures and contexts – “agency in communion” (Wilber).
  3. Closely coupled elements and functions – they are inter-dependent and contingent but not in a linear cause-effect way.
  4. Circular pathways and feedback loops that cross traditional boundaries of the brain, body and environment.
  5. Nested, multi-layered networks that “transcend and include” (Wilber) each other.
  6. Distributed processes spread across members of social groups.
  7. Continual change – in ways that balance development with continuity.
  8. Situated in time so that current events are the result of a whole history of previous events.
  9. Complex adaptive behaviour that emerges from the interactions of simpler elements – bottom-up.
  10. Self-organising systems without a central controller and where the whole produces more than the sum of the parts.


1 See for example my blog, Making Complex Decisions Rapidly, about the important of context matching: cleanlanguage.co.uk/articles/blogs/77/

2 Embedded cognition is not to be confused with embedded metaphors whose “metaphoric nature is disguised in ordinariness and familiarity” (Metaphors in Mind, p. 11). Penny Tompkins and I considered using the term ‘implicit metaphors’ but decided that while it was code-congruent – ‘implicit’ is itself an implicit metaphor coming from the Latin meaning ‘to fold in’ – we could make the point better with a more explicit and embodied metaphor: ‘embed’ was originally a geological term meaning ‘surrounded by matter’.

3 Robert Dilts and Judith DeLozier, Encyclopedia of Systemic NLP, NLP University Press, 2000. nlpuniversitypress.com/html3/SoSto31.html

For is an excellent example of the spelling strategy in action see Cricket Kemp and Caitlin Walker’s Magical Spelling process: magicalspellinglimited.com

4 The spelling strategy includes a step where the acquirer spells the word they are learning backwards despite the fact expert spellers never do this. So why is it is in the strategy? When the modellers first tried to teach the spelling strategy to poor spellers, they found that even though they learned the strategy, they did not believe this was enough to become a good speller. Someone had the bright idea of asking learners to spell the words backwards on the basis that ‘If you can spell words backwards, you know spelling them forwards will be easy’. It worked and the extra ‘convincer’ step became part of the process. A second advantage of the backwards spelling step is that it allows the facilitator to very easily calibrate whether the acquirer is using the required visual accessing or reverting to less efficient auditory methods (with the latter it’s almost impossible to spell words backwards).

References online to the DEEDS literature:

Clark, Andy & David J. Chalmers, The Extended Mind, Analysis, 58:10-23 (1998). Available at: consc.net/papers/extended.html

Cowley, Stephen & Frédéric Vallée-Tourangeau, Thinking in Action, AI & Society, 25:469–475 (2010). Available at: herts.academia.edu/StephenJCowley/Papers/1473878/

Marsh, Leslie, Dewey: the first ghost-buster?, Trends in Cognitive Science, 10.6: 242-243 (2006). Available at: works.bepress.com/manwithoutqualities/5

Robbins, Philip & Murat Aydede, A Short Primer on Situated Cognition, Chapter 1 of The Cambridge Handbook of Situated Cognition edited by Philip Robbins and Murat Aydede (2008). Available at: missouri.academia.edu/PhilipRobbins/Papers/97609/

Walmsley, Joe, Methodological situatedness; or, DEEDS worth doing and pursuing, Cognitive Systems Research 9:150–159 (2008). Download from: ucc.ie/jwalmsley/ms.pdf

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