Thinking Out of the Boxcar (Alex + Ojas)

We decided to analyze this week’s readings through the lens of automotive technology. Navigation, commute, and travel are  fundamental processes both for people and society, and the cognitive tasks we employ while operating vehicles serve critical roles.

Anyone who has ridden a bicycle or driven a car can attest to the fact that at some point, the operation of a vehicle becomes second nature. You stop consciously thinking about depressing the pedal or turning the handlebar, and the individual movements and actions, whether accelerating, braking, or turning, become autonomous. To use Clark’s parlance, a person and vehicle become a “coupled system” (Clark and Chalmers 8). You will often hear motorcycle and bicycle riders refer to being in “the zone”, a state in which they and their bike become one. The vehicle becomes an extension of your mind. The cognitive process of moving forward on a bicycle effectively makes the vehicle a part of the cognitive process, which reinforces this process as “extended mind.”
A vehicle’s active externalism is exemplified by this video:

In this video, Destin makes a distinction between knowledge and understanding and applies it to the backward brain bicycle. What happens if we engineer a bicycle’s handlebars to inversely change direction, or if turning right on the handlebars leads to turning left? Conceptually, it’s a simple idea and the ease with which we ride a normal bike might lead us to assume it to be easy to ride a backward brain bicycle. As the video shows, the knowledge of how the bike works doesn’t necessarily lead to the understanding required to operate it. This highlights how the handlebars’ design in a normal bike is important to our own cognitive processes of balance and steering. When the functionality of that is altered, the cognitive process of riding a bike is disrupted.

According to Jiajie Zhang and Vimla Patel, distributed  cognition refers to “cognitive systems whose structures and processes are distributed between internal minds and external environment, across a group of individual minds, and across space and time” (340). We discussed how we can fit their arguments regarding affordances, and the interplay of internal and external representations, to vehicular travel by thinking about it in terms of traffic flows and lane changing. Lanes of traffic are demarcated by lines painted on the road, and it is punishable by law to violate this order. For roads with high traffic, there may be multiple lanes going back and forth. The way vehicles organize themselves in multiple lanes is by speed – keep right except to pass. This results in lane changes while driving to reorganize to maximize the efficiency of this traffic flow system. To safely change lanes, a driver goes through several cognitive processes, demonstrated by the following diagram:

Zhong, et al

The speed of vehicles in front of you, speed limit signs, and the location of vehicles in the next lane are all external factors, which together with the internal representations of law and rushing create the affordances that allow for lane changing. The process is further facilitated by turn signals, which correlates to the distributed meaning of lane changes because of how it may influence drivers around the vehicle changing lanes, whether the driver slows down and allows for the lane change, speeds up to pass the car and make room, or simply recognizes the desire for a lane change.

We want to conclude our post by talking about some of the processes that have been offloaded to technology. One perfect example is the popularity of vehicles that have a GPS installed into the center console. By integrating a GPS into the vehicle, the cognitive task of navigation and memorizing directions is offloaded. The flows of traffic are offloaded to streetlights. We don’t have to get out of our cars and communicate at popular intersections. When a left signal turns green, I trust the signal facing oncoming traffic is red. The heavy yielding traffic during rush hour on the beltway is managed by intermittent red/green light signals. Anti-lock brakes allow for the driver to more efficiently consider space, road conditions, and timing when stopping a vehicle, instead of pumping brakes. And automatic gear shifting frees up our left foot and right hand. Accelerating to the flow of traffic is so easy when we don’t have to worry about manually shifting gears, and it frees up our hand to fiddle with the music volume and sip on coffee.


Clark, Andy and David Chalmers. “The Extended Mind.” Analysis 58, no. 1 (January 1, 1998): 7–19.

Destinws2. “The Backwards Brain Bicycle – Smarter Every Day 133.”YouTube. YouTube, 24 Apr. 2015. Web. 19 Oct. 2016.

Dror, Itiel D. and Stevan Harnad. “Offloading Cognition Onto Cognitive Technology.” In Cognition Distributed: How Cognitive Technology Extends Our Minds, edited by Itiel E. Dror and Stevan Harnad, 1-23. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing, 2008.

-Zhang, Jiajie and Vimla L. Patel. “Distributed Cognition, Representation, and Affordance.” Pragmatics & Cognition 14, no. 2 (July 2006): 333-341.

Zhong, Yaofeng, Yunyi Zhang and Xiao Zhao.”Keep Right To Keep “Right.” UMAP Journal 35.2/3 (2014): 111-137. OmniFile Full Text Mega (H.W. Wilson). Web. 19 Oct. 2016