On the trail of a thought : a kinenoetic analysis of problem-solving

Ross, Wendy (2020) On the trail of a thought : a kinenoetic analysis of problem-solving. (PhD thesis), Kingston University, .


The research in this thesis describes a microgenetic investigation of thought as it occurs in and through objects and informed by work in distributed cognition and interactivity. The thesis opens with a detailed survey of the arguments in cognitive philosophy around the ontological locus of cognition. I advance the conclusion that many of the open questions will not be solved by empirical methods and suggest a pragmatist approach. Four empirical studies are reported: Three laboratory-based studies which feature traditional problem-solving tasks found often in cognitive psychology and one which examines an artist solving problems which arise over the course of the artistic process. Each of the studies combines quantitative analysis with qualitative analysis of video recorded material to describe thinking in an open cognitive ecosystem. The first study reports performance on a word production task and finds that engagement with external representations is crucial to scaffold performance. The second study uses anagrams to assess the nature of that engagement and concludes a non-agentic model of mere luck is not sufficient. Study three examines performance on an insight problem and suggests that when the problem is not one which is easily scaffolded by material objects, systems form around other types of external scaffold. The final study tracks thought as it unfolds through making of a flower in an artist’s atelier. The findings of all the studies support the notion that cognition emerges in the form of material traces and actions on the world. The thesis introduces and develops two concepts—microserendipity and exaptative action—that offer a new perspective on the nature of problem solving and creativity. These concepts bring in sharp relief environmental chance in creativity when it is enacted; the methodology employed in the empirical work reported here also permits the identification of events when environmental chance is unnoticed. These phenomena operate outside the conscious observation of the problem solver so they cannot be tracked through traditional methods. The work reported here introduces kinenoetic analysis that trace in micro detail the dynamic transactional coupling between thought and objects that chart the origin of new ideas. The knowledge that the participant generates through the movement of objects mirrors the knowledge gained by the experimenter by these movements. The last chapter introduces kinemorphism as part of a qualitative description of the creative trajectory of an artist working with clay: form is unstable and arises out of action. Such a perspective suggests that what is produced cannot be explained by a reductive process that focuses on only one or the other, but rather must take into account the relationship which arises through action. Creativity from this perspective is transactional and relational. In terms of theoretical contributions, I cast doubt on an agent centric view of interactivity which posits an uncomplicated augmentative relationship between things beyond and within the brain and suggests instead a transactional approach to knowledge acquisition. These lead to novel observations on the role of the experiment in research in situated cognition. Reflections on the pluralistic method of kinenoetic analysis are offered and directions for future research are outlined.

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