Thinking With External Representations

AI and Society 25 (4):441-454 (2010)
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Why do people create extra representations to help them make sense of situations, diagrams, illustrations, instructions and problems? The obvious explanation— external representations save internal memory and com- putation—is only part of the story. I discuss seven ways external representations enhance cognitive power: they change the cost structure of the inferential landscape; they provide a structure that can serve as a shareable object of thought; they create persistent referents; they facilitate re- representation; they are often a more natural representation of structure than mental representations; they facilitate the computation of more explicit encoding of information; they enable the construction of arbitrarily complex structure; and they lower the cost of controlling thought—they help coordinate thought. Jointly, these functions allow people to think more powerfully with external representations than without. They allow us to think the previously unthinkable.

Author's Profile

David Kirsh
University of California, San Diego


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