External cognition

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External cognition is the use of the external world to achieve cognition, i.e. it interacts with external symbolic storage.

“External Cognition refers to the cognitive interplay between internal and external representations” (Navarro-Prieto et al., 1999)

“External cognition is a phrase referring to ways that people augment their normal cognitive processes with external aids, such as external writings, visualizations, and work spaces. External cognition is human or cognitive information processing that combines internal cognition with perception and manipulation of external representations of information.” - Glossary of Sensemaking Terms, Parc, retrieved 13:12, 2 November 2007 (MET)

See also: cognitive tool, instrumentation, affordance, distributed cognition, etc.

The Scaife and Rogers (1996) model

Yvonne Rogers (2004:110) defines external cognition at the highest level as "interaction between internal and external representations when performing cognitive tasks (e.g., learning)". At a next more operational level this relation is defined as computational offloading, i.e. the extent to which external representations can reduce the amount of cognitive effort rquired to solve a problem.

The framework allows us to identify the properties of external representations in terms of their `computational offloading'. This refers to the extent to which different external representations reduce or increase the amount of cognitive effort required to understand or reason about what is being represented. High computational offloading is where much of the effort is offloaded onto the representation, requiring minimal effort on behalf of the user for a given task. In contrast, low computational offloading is where much cognitive effort is required by the user to perform their task. In our analysis we have identified three main forms of computational offloading (Scaife and Rogers, 1996). These are:

  • re-representation - how different external representations, that have the same abstract structure, make problem-solving easier or more difficult. It also refers to how different strategies and representations, varying in their efficiency for solving a problem, are selected and used by individuals.
  • graphical constraining - how graphical elements in a graphical representation are able to constrain the kinds of inferences that can be made about the underlying represented concept.
  • temporal and spatial constraining - the way different representations can make relevant aspects of processes and events more salient when distributed over time and space.
- Navarro-Prieto, Scaife and Rogers, 1999, retrieved 13:12, 2 November 2007 (MET).

Rogers (2004:110) argues one for each of these computational offloading dimensions we can make predictions as to how effectively different representations and their combinations work.

These dimensions are then further characterized in terms of design concepts, with the purpose of framing questions, issues, and tradeoffs. Examples include:

  • Explicitness and visibility: how to make certain aspects of a display more salient, so that they can be perceived and comprehended appropriately
  • Cognitive tracing: what are the best means to allow users to externally manipulate and make marks on different representations
  • Ease of production: how easy it is for the user to create different kinds of external representations, such as diagrams and animations
  • Combinability and modifiability: how to enable the system and users to combine hybrid representations, for example by enabling the user to construct animations and commentary, which could be appended to static representations.


Applied fields


  • “Visualization is the use of interactive visual representations of data to amplify cognition. This means that the data is transformed into an image, it is mapped to screen space. The image can be changed by users as they proceed working with it. This interaction is important as it allows for constant redefinition of goals when new insight into the data has been gained. Visualization makes use of what is called external cognition.” (Voigt, 2002)
  • Internal cognition is the accessed knowing of tacit, codified abstractions and artifacts by an enactor in a particular situation. External cognition is the embodiment of the natural and the artifactual environment with which the enactor is interacting in that particular situation. This includes faces, signposts, interactive computer visualizations and day-to-day artifacts. External cognition, however, is meaningful only through and during the interplay of internal and external cognition of the enactor. Thus the interaction between the internal and the external cognition of knowledge and the dynamic temporal instantiation of knowledge during its deployment, be it creation, exchange or use, is the fundamental basis of the process that is at the root of the transformation of knowledge during its transfer.” (Shariq, 1999).



  • Card, Stuart K. , Jock D. Mackinlay, and Ben Shneiderman (2004). Information Visualization: Perception for Design, Morgan Kaufman. ISBN-10 1558608192.
  • Donald, M. (1991), Origin of the Modern Mind: Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition, Harvard University Press, Cambridge and Boston, MA., (Introduces external symbolic storage - ESS)
  • Kirsh, D. (1997). Interactivity and multimedia interfaces. Instructional Science,
  • Kirsh, D. (2001). The context of work. Human-Computer Interaction, 6(2),306-322.
  • Mackinlay, J. D. (1988). Applying a Theory of Graphical Presentation to the Graphic Design of User Interfaces Proceedings of the ACM SIGGRAPH Symposium on User Interface Software (UIST '88) 179-189. PDF
  • Navarro-Prieto, Raquel; Mike Scaife and Yvonne Rogers (1999). Cognitive Strategies In Web Searching, School of Cognitive and Computer Sciences, University of Sussex, Human Factors & the Web,HTML
  • Robertson, G. G., Card, S. K. and Mackinlay, J. D. (1989). The Cognitive Co-Processor for Interactive User Interfaces, Proceedings of the ACM Conference on User Interface Software and Technology 10-18.
  • Scaife, M., & Rogers, Y. (1996). External cognition: How do graphical representations work? International Journal of Human-Computer Studies , 45, 185-213. doi:10.1006/ijhc.1996.0048
  • Shariq, Syed Z. (1999). How does knowledge transform as it is transferred? Speculations on the possibility of a cognitive theory of knowledgescapes, Journal of Knowledge Management, 3 (4) pp. 243-251 HTML
  • Voigt, Robert (2002). An Extended Scatterplot Matrix and Case Studies in Information Visualization, Master Thesis, HTML--------

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