In a 1994 paper entitled “On Distinguishing Epistemic From Pragmatic Action” published in Cognitive Science, David Kirsh and Paul Maglio make an fascinating distinction between actions that change the world(pragmatic) and actions that change the nature of our mental tasks(epistemic). That sounds interesting you say, but how did the researchers go about showing such a distinction? By playing Tetris! Or rather, watching other people play Tetris.
I am sure almost all of you are familiar with the game Tetris so I won’t bother going into too much detail describing how one plays it. Basically, various geometric shapes called “zoids” fall one at a time and you have to arrange them in a row. One is allowed to rotate the zoids to best fit them into the virtual environment. The key idea behind using Tetris as their methodological domain was that Tetris is requires real-time, split-second interactive cognitive and perceptual performance. This allowed the researchers to tease out how people offload cognitive computation onto the external world in order to ease up the difficulty of the mental task at hand. This sort of external manipulation is called epistemic action and as I mentioned above, is distinguished from an action that merely seeks to change the nature of the world. Epistemic actions improve cognition by doing the following:
Reducing the memory involved in mental computation, that is, space complexity;
Reducing the number of steps involved in mental computation, that is, time complexity;
Reducing the probability of error of mental computation, that is, unreliability.
Kirsh and Maglio found that advanced Tetris players perform a variety of epistemic actions to reduce their internal computational effort. In contrast to less-advanced players who rotate the zoids in their head, advanced players would physically rotate the zoids. This seemingly simple action changes the way the mind handles the computational task of rotating the zoids in the game and thus allows the player to manipulate the virtual world with more reliability and speed.
Such data suggests that standard theoretical frameworks in cognitive science might not be enough to explain the full extant to which humans utilize the external environment in ways that alter their mental landscape to improve cognitive performance. Instead of breaking up the world into a dualism of physical space and information-processing space, it might be more theoretically useful to have a more unified and fluid space where both pragmatic and epistemic actions can take place. This approach gives more credence to the idea that we are fundamentally in the world, embedded and embodied, with a perceptual and cognitive repertoire that doesn’t make hard and fast distinctions between the inner and outer realms.
Kirsh, D., & Maglio, P (1994) On Distinguishing Epistemic from Pragmatic Action. Cognitive Science: A Multidisciplinary Journal, Vol. 18, No. 4: pages 513-549