In this paper, cognitive scientist David Kirsh provides an accessible and engaging overview of state-of-the-art research on human cognition in relation to tools. Starting from McLuhan’s famous statement, “We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us,” Kirsh outlines the key tenets of the embodied cognition paradigm, which aims to overcome the Cartesian body/mind dualism that still permeates our culture, and shows clear examples from his studies on expert dancers.
Embodied cognition claims that thought is not confined to the brain, but extends and relies on our body parts and external objects in complex ways, enabling us to “think with things.” Thought is not an abstract computation; it is firmly grounded in our physical constitution. When we interact with a tool, we rapidly absorb it into our cognitive apparatus, and we enter a new “enactive landscape” with novel affordances that we could not imagine without the tool. Tools impact our motor system, our synesthetic perception, and our conceptualization of reality, redrawing the boundaries of our world.
The author formulates questions relevant to interaction design and human-computer interaction: How far can we rewire ourselves into tools? What are the limits of this neuroadaptation? Even tentative answers, of course, will require a lot of work. Although the paper alludes to a “magical future of interaction design,” the author fails to explain how these insights can feed back into actual interfaces for information systems, and offers vague and cautious predictions.
I recommend this paper to anybody with an interest in philosophy, cognitive science, and human-computer interaction. It offers much food for multidisciplinary thought.