Main research topics
My work is animated by the ‘distributed cognition’ view of philosopher Andy Clark and cognitive anthropologist Edwin Hutchins. I advocate a ‘second-wave’ approach to this idea that cognitive processes can spread across brain, body, and social and material world. The mind is thus not just the brain, and ‘I’ am not in my head. This drives interdisciplinary work on socially distributed cognition (such as shared remembering), and on the cognitive life of things.
- Read ‘Exograms and interdisciplinarity: history, the extended mind, and the civilizing process’ (2010).
Autobiographical and shared remembering
We remember shared experiences in the company of other people all the time – with lovers, family, friends, colleagues and in other small groups. But much work in psychology and philosophy treats memory as a purely individual capacity, with other people seen as a source of error and distortion. In experiment and theory with Amanda Barnier and Celia Harris, we study collaborative recall, identifying the interactive microprocesses driving emergent outcomes of remembering together.
- Read ‘Couples as socially distributed cognitive systems: remembering in everyday social and material contexts’ (Harris, Barnier, Sutton, & Keil – 2014).
Embodied cognition and skilled movement
Skilled experts in sport or dance perform extraordinary actions in perfect time, with exquisite control, and display resilient coping under pressure: their mindful bodies blend cognition and emotion in action. We test rather abstract ‘embodied cognition’ frameworks against real-world domains of skilled activity, where the mind-body problem comes to practical life. We argue against influential views that expert performance is automatic: rather, thinking itself can be bodily and dynamic.
My early historical work addressed Descartes and early modern neurophilosophy. Now, with Lyn Tribble and in the Conversions project, I study the history of mindful practices, not just ideas about the mind. Our framework for cognitive history addresses distributed ecologies of memory and skill in early modern England. We also work in the broader cognitive humanities, writing on literature and film, and in linguistics, cognitive archaeology, and media theory.
- Read ‘Cognitive history and material culture’ (Sutton & Keene, 2016).
- Read ‘Traces, brains, and history’ the introduction to my book *Philosophy and Memory Traces: Descartes to connectionism* (1998).