Changing Minds – A Conceptual Framework for Relational Cognition

By Clifton Evans, Learnovate

As you are reading this, how many times will you check your phone for a text, an email, a shared link, or photo? Some of these moments of attention will be based on alerts, but how many are habitual, simply checking the device for potential updates?

Our minds are continually looking to continue earlier conversations or to start new ones. We have sometimes dozens of ongoing conversations, not to mention the long list of open tabs and draft emails containing trains of thought we intend to follow up on.

We are living in a continual shift of focus, and this article aims to provide some understanding on how our minds are adapting to constant changes in train of thought.

Although the presence of everyday text conversations has become socially and psychologically accepted, it has also led to significant new awareness on how we understand the structure of our minds. Most forms of cognition studies busy themselves with real time communications and interactions, but it is the unpredictable responses and the unforeseen delays in textual interactions that bring light to new forms of cognition.

Each individual experiences a different set of processing patterns during the dialog of a text interaction, whether the text is an informal chat, meeting plans with a potential lover, a detailed work email, or interactions with entertainment.

These differences in individual experience provide great insight into the mind, because our normative understanding of physical space and of time are breaking down, particularly when it comes to relaying information.

Although most interactions are still offline, conversation and reading have essentially become more complex by going online or digital. We are suddenly immersed in new types of cognition during conversations where time and space seem to fold, or at least slightly bend. These new types of relational cognition add much to our lives.

For example, text interaction online—as compared to vocal conversation offline—is far less predictable in terms of getting a response: when that response will come, what sort of response it will be, and how long it might take to process that response. Our minds have evolved to process information in real-time and to experience conversations which were somewhat predictable in length of response, frequency, and timing.

In terms of evolution, the mind has only very recently started to adapt to processing written language, but now we have sudden increases in non-linear, multi-threaded, graphical communications, in unpredictable amounts and timings…

So, what does this mean in cognitive science?

We are seeing huge changes in our framework surrounding pattern recognition.


Traditionally, human understanding of patterns in conversation and interactions in the presentation of textual information is referred to formally as recognition: We recognise patterns and act on them.

50 years ago, when our minds were only beginning to adapt to remote communications with radio, television, and mass media in general, the entire possibility of non-linear communication would have been considered not only science fiction but also probably the imagination of the insane.

But, suddenly, we have had to process a vast increase in the amount and variety of information available, amazingly fast exchanges, incredibly delayed communications, and communications with either very little or quite large amounts of information. The methods we use to access and manipulate it have exploded in variety, as well. New types of recognition are required even if we are the ones guiding or altering the flow of communication.


We have begun to vary the strength of one of the greatest assets in human consciousness: our ability to predict patterns and understanding, formally referred to as precognition.

Being able to process sounds and symbols originating at a great distance from us was previously thought to be telepathy. We now call simply call it telecommunication.

Our precognition systems once had few and simple patterns to interpret; now, our minds need to develop new types of precognition by fabricating or extending existing notions of communications.

Simultaneously, we’re being assaulted with larger and larger numbers of patterns as our communications become more unpredictable. What was once fantastical telepathy is now a text message. With emoji. And animated gifs.

Human brains are experiencing the mental equivalent of a bird species adapting its form for multiple different environments, while also continually and immediately adapting its location and perspective to meet the needs of a constant supply of new interactions.

Developing new cognition systems for communications has become quite a psychological challenge, but it is also bringing life to a new understanding of precognition, which we will need in order to operate in this new world of dynamic communications.


Perhaps the strongest insight into the effect of multidimensional communication on our minds is gained from the advances in an area referred to as decognition.

Today, at any given time, the average connected human mind regularly participates in upwards of ten or twenty continual ‘conversations’ across a variety of different types: email, text, messenger, WhatsApp, Skype, Google Talk, Snapchat, Instagram… the list goes on. We may be in the middle of a handful of dedicated email conversations, several light chat communications—some involving images, video, and sound—while we also maintain active interactions with online content, all of which also evolve regardless of timing or physical location.

This multi-tasking experience is incredibly difficult unless your mind has adapted to this new process of disengaging with one communication type and placing it ‘on-hold’ in your mind—essentially, putting it in a temporal stasis until it is recognised or understood to be relevant again.

Similar to how a bird species might have to adapt to suddenly being in a new environment, adapting to an unpredictable landscape of communication is making our minds incredibly adept at decognition, or simply just forgetting things until they are needed.


Despite these recent vast differentials in human perception and cognition, we somehow see a consistency in our new experiences, and we treat these digital experiences as being – for the most part – very similar to the physical world of communications and older information systems of paper and voices.

This internal consistency in our perceived experiences is essentially an adaptation of our innate abilities in pattern recognition: we are quite successfully fabricating new patterns to adapt the understood patterns of voice and text communication.

Essentially, our minds are playing fill-in-the-blanks, and it seems to be working. We are fairly reliably interacting through space and time, with our new technology, on a massive international scale.

But, the immediate solution of adapting existing patterns to new forms of understanding is often filling in more blanks than we had expected. This leads to these new notions in cognition, and as a result we are naturally producing many new designs for the spaces we inhabit with that information.

For example, email and text messaging systems was based on something akin to the postal service, but that service did not really pre-exist in the digital ecosystem, at least not in the same way.

We, as a species, are subsequently taking that new pattern—call it ‘evolved mail’—and are creating new forms with it, such as shortened sentences, acronyms, instant replies, and auto-responders, until yet another new pattern emerges.

This is similar to a bird species adapting an existing pattern of knowledge—how to defend a nest against other birds—to a new environment. Once there, if other birds don’t raid nests, the original pattern is no longer very relevant, and thus new patterns emerge.

We are constantly giving new form to these new types of communications, creating even more new types of interactions. This feedback loop with our built environment is creating a very significant evolution in our cognitive frameworks.

Relational Cognition

All of these new patterns in recognition, decognition, precognition, and adaptation are natural reactions to new cognitive changes in the mind. When these new patterns are seen within our larger social framework, they start to resemble the types of variation within a relational structure.

I’m referring to all of these as types of relative cognition or relational cognition, a way of understanding these new spatial and temporal differentials in communication and internal processing, when compared to each other.

It also has a nice way of reflecting on the more human element of relating to each other through technology.

In this case, relational cognition is looking at the effects of our new variety in physical space and timing of communications. It also reflects the changes in our information spaces as they become more relational and they begin to exhibit more patterns of relative computing. Looking at the way the mind works through the framework of relative cognition spurs new discussions on things like distributed synapses and information agency, particularly in pattern recognition, but also in understanding our awareness in cognitive pattern differentials.

Relational cognition is the basis for a new type of embodied cognition, based not only on recognition, precognition, decognition, and adaptation, but also on the embodiment of cognitive processes relating to other temporal and spatial concepts. If there were an example of species evolution that we could compare to this phenomenon, it would have to be a very organic and flexible adaptation based on interconnected structures, reassembling and constantly adaptive forms. This would be perhaps similar to adaptations in flocking patterns of birds, changing with the diet, with the weather, with the time of day, all of which with differing evolutionary changes in the species.

And right now, our everyday digital decisions are based on this new parallel or distributed agency, switching between various modes and logics, adapting and determining solutions to the new forms of relative cognition which are emerging. We are learning new frameworks of understanding and systems of logic through a type of interconnected processing because our notions of information speed and communication proximity are completely upended.

Our obsession with the electronic started almost two centuries ago as a type of Vaudevillian sideshow entertainment—proving the impossible with lightning, smoke, and mirrors—and now has become an interconnected form of consciousness only Marconi or Tesla could have visualised possible during that time. Through the visions of these early geniuses in electrical research and theory, we have the actual means to now communicate with the stars, to recreate vision and sound across oceans, and to share our minds in an infinite sea of communication and information. Only one century ago, all of these concepts would have been associated with madness, or at least a fantastic dream, but here we stand in a changed understanding of our own potential, learning to live with the new cognitive developments we are creating for ourselves.


Does this adaptation of our cognitive abilities bring to the surface an increased perception, especially when it comes to information processing or our ability to learn?

One might think we are developing increased perception, depending on the nature of the information we are learning, the type of interactions involved, and the ways we process that information. Many educators have stated that more social and interactive students have a tendency to acquire information more easily and develop new and valuable approaches to learning on their own, but how does this relate to digital spaces and information processing? Are we learning ‘better’ because of these shifts in communications?

Are we evolving, as a species or as individuals, regardless of the amount of communications we are taking part in, or regardless of the information structures we take part in with our minds?


Humans’ adaptations will surely allow for very interesting changes in our perception, some of which most predictably lay in our immediate future.

Already we see massive changes in how our attention is divided between tasks and communications; we are adapting to no longer need to be living the lives of dedicated attention that was expected of previous generations. However, that adaptation comes with a cost: Our societies are not yet prepared to deal with shifting attentions, and our historical focus on linear- and location-based information creates significant stress as we adapt our cognition patterns to the present and become capable of being multifocal.

Understanding these new cognitive frameworks should influence work in artificial intelligence, machine learning, and the communications enhancements necessary to support changing focus and shifting trains of thought between dozens of different conversations and avenues of information exploration.

This article first appeared in Boxes and Arrows, a peer-written journal devoted to the practice, innovation, and discussion of design—including graphic design, interaction design, information architecture, and the design of business.

Further reading

Talks concerning new research in focus, concentration and cognitive ability

Adam Gazzaley on distraction and focus.

Google I/O talk on basic cognition principles and design solutions.

Don Norman on designing for non-linear reading.

News articles about advances in our mental activity and technology.

Explaining the fallacy surrounding multi-tasking, which is a myth.

Biometric typing patterns as a form of identity.

Editorial writing on different types of cognition and understanding ourselves.

Interesting piece on extended cognition, including our environment in our thinking.

Academic references surrounding cognition, memory, and tasks.

Overview of a lot of the current research into cognition and mobile usage.!po=38.7295

A brief and relatively thorough history of embodied cognition over the last 40 years.


Clifton Evans
Clifton Evans

User Experience Researcher