“Thinking Outside the Head” Article by Barrett

Louise Barrett’s (2020) article titled “Thinking Outside the Head: Cognitive Ecologies and Evolutionary Psychology” reflects on the possibility of integrating evolutionary biology and social sciences to create evolutionarily informed psychology. The author discusses possible reasons why evolutionary notions have very limited tractions in psychology and covers potentially applicable approaches to the study of cognition as environment-oriented rather than limited solely to the individual’s brain. The article concludes with a call for evolutionary psychology combining the notions of cultural anthropology and gene-centered theory of coevolution to adopt an externalist view of mind and approach psychological issues with attention to context.

The article begins with the author asking why the theory of evolution did not bring substantial changes in social sciences in general and psychology specifically. According to it, the study of humanity and its relationship with its environment requires a multidisciplinary effort combining the approaches of evolutionary biology and social sciences. The author offers several explanations for the fact that such an effort did not materialize as of yet. On the one hand, some psychologists prefer viewing the human mind as entirely a product of culture and reject the idea of an evolutionary basis for psychological studies, perhaps, due to sheer disciplinary bias. On the other hand, when rejecting the potential application of evolutionary theory, social scientists may operate the already obsolete notions, such as direct genetic determinism, and forego the much subtler contemporary approach. In either case, the result is the same – for all its potential promise, evolutionary psychology remains merely a possibility rather than reality made manifest.

The author then goes on to discuss how the traditional notions of mind may conflict with the contributions that the evolutionary theory has to offer and, thus, delay the development of evolutionary psychology. As the article notes, the psychological concept of mind as entirely located within the individual goes back to the Early Modern philosopher Rene Descartes. Admittedly, the contemporary philosophy does not share his radical idea that mind and body are two distinct and entirely separate substances. However, it continues to maintain the philosopher’s idea that the mind is contained solely within the individual, having no external components. This notion contrasts with the idea of extended cognition, which suggests that environmental objects external to an individual’s physical body may play their own role in human cognitive processes. If that is the case, then psychology has to take the environment into consideration and expand its focus from a single individual to a broad range of environmental interactions that contribute to human cognition.

The author continues with concise coverage of several cognitive ecologies developed so far that can facilitate greater cooperation between evolutionary theory and social sciences. One such approach is distributed cognition, which puts the emphasis on collective rather than individual cognitive functioning. As a result, social context becomes a vital part of cognition when studied through this lens. Another theory is enactivism, arguing there is no explicit boundary between the mind and the external environment because cognition rests on the bodily exploration of the world. A similar yet different approach is that of extended minds, which also blurs the traditional borders between the mind and the environment. Instead of proclaiming that the arbitrary division between the two serves no purpose, this approach posits that external objects, such as a forgetful person’s notebook, may literally become parts of a cognition system. Finally, there is also the more conservative theory of scaffolded or embedded minds, which also poses that cognition necessarily relies on environmental interaction but does not proclaim external objects to actually be parts of a cognitive system.

The last part of the article is dedicated to discussing how scholars can integrate concepts of extended cognition into their research to provide evolutionary-grounded psychology. The author is quick to note that the externalist approaches do not belittle the importance of the brain but require reconsidering some of the premises in the way psychologists think of them. The first step is addressing the human mind within an environmental and social context rather than in isolation, but it is not the only one. According to the author, one thing that psychologists need to do is to retire the perception of the environment as merely a supplier of inputs to a human nervous system. Another important change would be acknowledging that contextual differences may lead not to merely superficial but profound changes in cognition. With these conditions met, the development of psychology based on extended cognition and evolutionary theory becomes a possibility.

In short, Barrett’s (2020) article discusses the reasons why evolutionary theory did not make a considerable impact in psychology so far, as well as the ways in which it can do that. According to the author, disciplinary bias and insufficient awareness of contemporary evolutionary concepts are both obstacles in this process. Overcoming them would also require overcoming the traditional concept of mind as solely contained within the individual and utilizing one or more theories of extended cognition with their emphasis on the environment. However, if this is done, psychology may achieve a far more holistic view of human cognition firmly rooted in evolutionary history and environmental context.


Barrett, L. (2020). Thinking outside the head: Cognitive ecologies and evolutionary psychology. In L. Workman, W. Reader, & J. H. Barkow (Eds.), The Cambridge handbook of evolutionary perspectives on human behavior (pp. 194-205). Cambridge UP.

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1. PsychologyWriting. "“Thinking Outside the Head” Article by Barrett." October 9, 2022. https://psychologywriting.com/thinking-outside-the-head-article-by-barrett/.


PsychologyWriting. "“Thinking Outside the Head” Article by Barrett." October 9, 2022. https://psychologywriting.com/thinking-outside-the-head-article-by-barrett/.