Yes–thought can happen outside the brain. Do I have your attention yet? Cognition, often assumed to be limited to the confines of the human brain can actually be embodied, embedded, extended, and enacted (the four E’s).

I’ve only recently become acquainted with a new field of interdisciplinary inquiry–one which has consumed my thoughts and filled me with intellectual curiosity and excitement in ways that I never thought possible. More a variety of approaches rather than one coherent field of study, 4E cognition is a category of study (or perhaps more accurately a family of related questions and possibilities) located somewhere at the intersection of phenomenological philosophy and cognitive science. I’ve challenged myself to write this blog post as the most basic introduction possible for two reasons: first, I would like to expose as many people as possible to this extraordinarily thrilling (but for many, difficult to understand) series of topics and, secondly, to help myself think through what is still very new to me. In particular, (no surprise, of course!) I am the most interested in the intersection between 4E cognition and performance. In so many ways they speak directly to each other in ways that I find inspiring and refreshing.

Perhaps the best way for me to accomplish what I’m setting out to do is to introduce 4E cognition right alongside–parallel to–understandings of performance, drawing on the theatrical to make the murkier concepts of 4E clearer as I introduce them to the reader. I’ll begin by tackling the basics in the form of responses to questions. Like any topic worth exploring, definitions can be multiple and carry nuanced shades of meaning. If you find yourself confused, all I can say is you might be starting to “make sense” of these challenging but enriching ideas!

What is cognition?

Cognition, most simply, can be understood as thought. We when we are thinking, we are cognizing, which I like to think of as the acquisition, the possession, and the utilization of knowledge. I like to think of cognition, or the use of knowledge, as the “making sense” of the world around you. But you don’t have to be a person in order to “make sense” of, or come to know, the world around you. Animals make sense of their world. So do plants. So, actually, do all organisms! But not even just organism; living systems come to “make sense” of their environments, make adjustments for their own self-perpetuation, and evolve over time. By living, taking in feedback of any sort from the environment, and partaking in a sustained engagement with that environment, we learn–that is, we come to know. And what we know affects how we move forward–whether you are a ballerina or a bacterium. And, whether ballerina or bacterium, in the words of Maya Angelou, “When you know better, you do better.”

How can cognition be . . . [insert any of the four E’s here]?

René Descartes, philosopher and early modern scientist, convinced all of us that “we” are essentially two distinct but perhaps related “things”: mind and body. When you think about it, it’s astounding how this principle of dualism continues to influence our thinking; it’s really hard to get away from. Our body is one thing and our mind is something else. It’s hard to even critically question this notion because we are taught to take it for granted early on in our lives and in our own engagements with the world. But what if our “mind” (whatever that is–the thing that cognizes, that deals with knowledge) is actually embodied, or located/happening/generated within our bodies? What if it’s just body (as opposed to mind) that interacts with and makes sense of the world? Such a fascinating question bears endless possibilities for thinking about dance, which is a profoundly corporeal experience.

And, furthermore, what if our cognitive faculties (the things that let us make sense of the world) are inextricably embedded in the world around us? Suppose they don’t have the same meaning or value in any other context? Suppose they came to be what they are because of the world in which they exist? In so many ways we are defined by where we are, what is around us, and where we find ourselves embedded. So much so that if we were to be removed (if such a thing is even possible), then what is left to exist? What is left to know or be known?

Cartesian dualism convinces us that cognition is something we do entirely and safely inside our minds. But what if “making sense” of our world requires us to extend that task of making sense to things located outside of our brains (assuming the brain is where our mind is located and assuming mind and brain are two different things, which we don’t really know for certain). Doing my taxes is certainly cognitive. It requires thought and is indeed a “making sense” of the world around me and much of that process seems to be something done inside my head. But . . . if I use a calculator to help me, then some of that knowledge or cognitive processing capability I need to do my taxes is being outsourced. The software I use takes some of the burden, for example, but it can’t take all of it. If your taxes are particularly complex, you need to hire a professional–someone with the cognitive ability to do a good job on that tax return. But they don’t do all the work in their head, do they? They use paper, software, pencils, a calculator. It’s work that can’t be done entirely in one’s head and, as such, is extended into an outer world.

The dancer is an even more obvious example. Does it count as dancing if it doesn’t extend into an outer world? Can we dance simply in our own heads?

This brings me to the fourth E: enacted cognition. Sometimes, maybe, in order to make sense of and to interact with our environment, with the external objective reality, we find ourselves enacting a subjective world around us. Here’s an example: let’s say a news anchor is broadcasting from within a studio. The audience is national but in the studio itself is just the newscaster and someone behind the camera. The newscaster knows somewhere that they are being watched by millions of people in millions of different locations (homes, airports, waiting rooms) throughout the country. But in many ways, the newscaster can’t really be aware of that at all. The newscaster can’t see those millions of people and just can never really know all the contexts in which she is being seen or understood. Maybe she doesn’t want to because it would be overwhelming. So the world that she interacts with is an infinitely smaller, more manageable world–the enacted world of the studio. She knows enough to know that on camera is not the best place to be caught picking her nose, for instance, but in her world there in the studio is an artificially, misleadingly small and intimate world compared to the overwhelmingly large one with which she is actually interacting. And yet it works; she does the job.

If we turn to the world of nature, we see another example in the form of the bat. I don’t know what it’s like to be a bat and to use echolocation to “make sense” of the world around me. I don’t know what that bat world “looks” like–if “look” is even the appropriate word. The bat is either more or less aware of the same external environment in which I live. It must seem so different. And yet, that enacted world–the world created by the bat itself for the purpose of being known by the bat–seems to work for the bat. The bat gets its job done. It finds food and it finds its way home and that seems to be what matters for bat success.

4E and Performance

I’m fascinated by these scintillating and disturbing questions about the relationship between inner and outer reality and how we can perceive, know, and interact with our worlds. These questions actually get to the crux of performance. When I am onstage I am both within myself and interacting with a subjective world and an external environment. I’m growing, I’m changing, I’m evolving, I’m adjusting–I’m doing a whole bunch of things to make sense of and to change my environment and myself and both at the same time. But one thing is for sure: I don’t know where myself ends and where my audience begins. I don’t know where that boundary is between the internal and external. I don’t know how much of my performance is that which is being performed versus that which is being observed. I, myself, am doing both at the same time.

This confusing and thrilling thought here is why I find performance to be the most perfect example of and perhaps most challenging and confounding instance of seeing the world (and ourselves) through a 4E lens. The performer is always all four E’s and yet never completely any.

More thinking to come!