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Previous Experience

Steven Pinker (1997) acknowledges that the mind works as a system that includes one’s prior experiences and various forms of representation to understand information. We retain images of various objects and our interactions with the world to assist in understanding future interactions with those objects or people and situations that may be similar. Fields such as distributed cognition and social semiotics theorize the relationship between social interactions and cognitive processes.

How one perceives the world is very much a function of the influence others may have on them. Teachers and parents exert considerable influence in shaping a child’s perception of the world; children learn how to think about the world by watching adults perform tasks and listening to someone tell them about the world. Any biases one has about the world can be transferred to a child whom he or she is teaching. Further, our values are socially constructed, which influences how we perceive the value of a given product or service or policy.

Distinguishing artificial intelligence from human intelligence, Brooks and Stein (1994) note that human “intelligence cannot be separated from subjective experience of a body” (p. 7). Even Schiappa (2003) argues the multiplicity of reality. What one perceives as “reality” is established through their interaction with the world. Such interaction involves experiences one has by himself as well as interactions with others that help to shape our understanding of our experiences. Two people who come from very different backgrounds may have different perceptions of the world, and this affects how they interpret information. Much scholarship in social semiotics and multimodality also observes this relationship, and scholarship in neurobiology and cognitive neuroscience also recognizes the role of previous experience in cognition.

This study of the role of previous experience in cognition is important because persuasion is affected by one’s perceptions of the world. A model that recognizes and considers this role and one’s prior learning experiences may facilitate development of more effective learning tools.

Relative to the concept of distributed cognition, Hutchins (2000) notes that “something special might be happening in systems of distributed processing, whether the processors are neurons, connectionist nodes, areas of a brain, whole persons, groups of persons, or groups of groups of persons” (p. 2). As systems interact new knowledge is developed and cognition occurs. This knowledge development and cognition may be relative to the individual—neuron-processing, or to an entire culture—processing that occurs among groups of groups of persons, and any level in between. That is, distributed cognition can be at the level of the individual (distribution of systems within the brain) or at the level of culture (p. 5).

Hutchins also recalls Vygotsky’s (1986) points that cognitive function occurs at two levels—interpsychological and intrapsychological. Drawing on Vygotsky and socially distributed cognition, Hutchins acknowledges that, “the new functional system inside the child is brought into existence in the interaction of the child with others (typically adults) and with artifacts” (p. 5). Further, it is through these interactions that one can eventually learn to understand a situation “in the absence of the others” (p. 5). Neural plasticity facilitates this cognitive development within the individual’s brain, but social interaction is a part of that neural development. Finally, Hutchins notes the contextual nature of cognition. He observes that “cognitive activity is sometimes situated in the material world in such a way that the environment is a computational medium” (p. 7).

Further, as Mayer (2001) does, Gee (2003) connects prior experience and cognition. People learn by making connections between past experiences and new experiences (pp. 75-76). These experiences can affect how ready one is to change their perception of something toward action relative to a persuasive message. Much as Moreno and Mayer (2000) observe that different people may respond differently to training because of their background experiences, Lacey and Sathian (2012) observe that, “individual history (visual experience, training, etc.)” can affect how each person responds to various sensory experiences (p. 184). Other neuroscientists also note the role of experience in understanding how information is processed (King, Doubell, and Skaliora, 2004; and Wallace, 2004).


There is considerable overlap in understanding what affects cognition relative to the various scientific fields involved in cognition—social, natural, and physical. As Jack (2012) observes with her introduction of the concept of “neurorhetoric,” the field of rhetoric can contribute to studies in cognitive neuroscience. The information I have provided here, showing these overlaps, helps to introduce a model that can facilitate interdisciplinary theorization and study specific to multimodal rhetoric and cognition. In the next chapters I detail the model that can be used to integrate the two disciplines.

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