Emergent Cognition

How can emergent complexity help us reimagine the ways we think about cognition?

All the matter in the world – everything we can see, hear, touch, taste, and smell around us – is made of molecules. It’s not that matter has molecules in it, but that matter is molecules. We just don’t see the world as molecules because of extreme differences in scale: We’re too big and molecules are too small. If we could shrink ourselves down to a very small size (nearly 10,000 times smaller than a pinhead), we would see how matter is made of molecules. At a smaller scale, we would see that molecules are made of atoms. At an even smaller scale, we would see that atoms are made of subatomic particles.

Matter emerges from molecules, molecules emerge from atoms, and atoms emerge from subatomic particles. What if, like the physical emergence of matter, cognitive emergence gives rise to mind? What if cognition is an emergent process in which our minds emerge from our thoughts, our thoughts emerge from our feelings, and our feelings emerge from our senses?

Inspired by Uri Wilensky and Mitchel Resnick’s work on emergent levels; Andrew Ortony, Donald Norman, and William Revelle’s work related to levels of cognitive processing; and Terrence Deacon’s work involving levels of representation, Emergent Cognition is a theoretical framework for exploring ideas related to an emergent systems perspective of cognition:

How do simple interactions at one scale effect relatively complex interactions at another scale?

Just as matter emerges from different scales of physical interactions, what if mind emerges from different scales of cognitive interactions?

How might a theoretical framework of emergent cognition inform the ways we design for learning experiences?

Deacon, T.W. (1997). The symbolic species: The coevolution of language and the brain. New York: Norton.

Ortony, A., Norman, D. A., and Revelle, W. (2005). Affect and proto-affect in effective functioning. In J.M. Fellous & M.A. Arbib, Who needs emotions: The brain meets the machine. New York: Oxford University Press.

Wilensky, U., and Resnick, M. (1999). Thinking in levels: A dynamic systems approach to making sense of the world. Journal of Science Education and Technology, vol. 8, no. 1, pp. 3-19.





Everything is simpler than we think, and at the same time more complex than we can imagine.
[Johann Wolfgang von Goethe]