Week 31: Ed Hutchins (2011) Enculturating the Supersized Mind

This is one of my all-time favourite papers. I wrote my PhD thesis on distributed cognition and spent a lot of time reading Ed Hutchins’ work. A majority of people primarily know of his work for his seminal ethnographic study of navigation on board a US aircraft carrier in the early 1990s prior to the widespread use of GPS devices. In particular, what attracted the attention of philosophers and other theorists was Hutchins’ claim in chapter four of his book Cognition in the Wild (1995) that the task of ascertaining the location of the vessel was distributed across a team of agents and tools. Whilst this is certainly an interesting claim, it is a shame that there is not a wider engagement with the rest of the text – which, in many ways, actually contains much more interesting claims about human cognition as it takes place in the everyday world.

Distributed cognition is often compared to the extended mind. In this paper Hutchins provides a commentary on Andy Clark’s (2008) book Supersizing the Mind. Hutchins outlines what he thinks is the major difference between the two positions – and he pinpoints it down to the source of organisation for human cognitive systems. Clark uses the term “assemblages” to discuss how brain, body, and world interact to tackle cognitive tasks. His major concern focuses on synchronic instances in which this occurs – and his more recent work takes a predictive processing approach to this topic. Hutchins responds that Clark’s focus is overly narrow and has overlooked the role cultural practices play in the construction of human cognitive systems. Whereas Clark adopts a “organism centered but not organism bounded” approach (2008, p. 139), Hutchins eschews this and asserts that this position is guilty of what he refers to elsewhere as “overattribution” (1995, 2008). Overattribution is when too much of the epistemic credit is given to the individual and not enough to the wider cultural niche in which the agent has developed and acquired these practices. Hutchins gives the examples of navigation: if we focus only on how a particular individual is manipulating an epistemic tool or utilising cultural knowledge to navigate through their environment, then this unit of analysis fails to take into account both [1] the developmental processes by which the agent learnt how to successfully use these tools and knowledge, and also [2] the historical factors in which this knowledge and tools have accumulated across generations.

There is a strong congruence here between Hutchins’ position and that of Richard Menary (2013, 2014).  Both Menary and Hutchins advocate that the brain has been sculpted for social interaction with others, and that different developmental environments provide differing structures for how the mind is shaped and organised. In these regards we can see culture as a source of order and organisation for the “assemblage” of human neurocognitive systems. Culture is the constraints, tool-sets, and differing patterned behaviours which are then enacted by human neurocognitive systems (often in conjunction with other tools or other agents).

Hutchins concludes that we need more ecologically salient studies of cognition in the wild to properly understand the interplay of brains, body, and cultural practices in finer-grained detail. I would note – in agreement with John Sutton and colleagues (2010), Huebner (2014) and others – that progress can perhaps be best made here by trying to focus on very specific or particularised cognitive domains and distinct sets of “patterned practices” (Roepstorff et al 2010). We are already dealing with a very complicated milieu here, and as such we may have to set our sights quite low in order to make any headway into identifying the more concrete mechanisms at play here. A good example of this is the case of mathematics, which we can analyse on multiple levels to see how the particular cultural practice (mathematics) impacts on the neurocognitive system (for an overview see Menary & Gillett 2017):

  • Learning to use different external representational mediums for manipulating numerals is correlated with differing neural populations (Hu et  al 2011; Tanaka 2012; Tang et al 2006).
  • Learning to use Arabic-Hindu numerals alters the performance of both children and adults in estimation tasks – this indicates that the basic ‘number sense’ that humans share with other organisms is altered by culture (Dehaene 2007). A cognitive analysis by Zhang and Norman (1994) has also showed that this notation system has superior features compared to other systems.
  • Cognitive-Historical aspects of mathematical systems are also important for how contemporary mathematical cognition occurs (De Cruz & De Smedt 2013; Fabry 2017).

There is much more to be said about this case. But these brief points are sufficient for indicating that a large aspect of how humans engage in mathematical reasoning – through the assemblage of neural, bodily, and external resources – is organised by cultural factors which should not be excluded from the unit of analysis. Indeed, these cultural practices should properly be seen as sources of order for how the putative distributed cognitive system operates.





Clark, A. (2008) Supersizing the Mind: Embodiment, Action, and Cognitive Extension. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

De Cruz, H., & De Smedt, J. (2013) Mathematical symbols as epistemic actions. Synthese, 190, 3-19.

Dehaene, S. (2007) Symbols and quantities in parietal cortex: elements of a mathematical theory of number representation and manipulation. (pp. 527-574) in P. Haggard, Y. Rossetti and M. Kawato (Eds.) Attention & Performance XXII. Sensori-motor foundations of higher cognition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Fabry, R. E. (2017) Cognitive Innovation, Cumulative Cultural Evolution, and Enculturation. Journal of Cognition and Culture 17 (7), 375-395.

Hu, Y., Geng, F., Tao, L., Hu, N., Du, F., Fu, K. & Chen, F. (2011) Enhanced White Matter Tracts Integrity in Children With Abacus Training. Human Brain Mapping 32, 10-21.

Huebner, B. (2014) Macrocognition: A Theory of Distributed Minds and Collective Intentionality. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hutchins, E. (1995) Cognition in the wild. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press

Hutchins, E. (2008) The role of cultural practices in the emergence of modern human intelligence. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 363, 2011-2019.

Hutchins, E. (2011) Enculturating The Supersized Mind. Philosophical Studies, 152, 437-446.

Menary, R. (2013) The Enculturated Hand. (pp. 349-367) in Radman, Z. (ed.) The Hand, an Organ of the Mind: What the Manual Tells the Mental. London: MIT Press.

Menary, R. (2014) Neural Plasticity, Neuronal Recycling and Niche Construction. Mind and Language 29 (3), 286-303.

Menary, R. & Gillett, A. J. (2017) Embodying Culture: Integrated Cognitive Systems and Cultural Evolution. (pp. 72-87) in J. Kiverstein (ed.) The Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of the Social Mind. New York: Routledge.

Roepstorff, A., Niewöhner, J. & Beck, S. (2010) Enculturing brains through patterned practices. Neural Networks 23, 1051–1059.

Sutton, J., Harris, C. B., Keil, P. G. & Barnier, A. J. (2010) The psychology of memory, extended cognition, and socially distributed remembering. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences 9(4), 521-560.

Tanaka, S., Seki, K., Hanakawa, T., Harada, M., Sugawara, S. K., Sadato, N., Watanabe, K. & Honda, M. (2012) Abacus in the brain: a longitudinal functional MRI study of a skilled abacus user with a right hemispheric lesion. Frontiers in Psychology 315, 1-13.

Tang, Y., Zhang, W., Kewel, C., Feng, S., Ji, Y., Shen, J., Reiman, E. M., & Llu, Y. (2006) Arithmetic processing in the brain shaped by cultures. PNAS 103(28), 10775-10780.

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