, Volume 25, Issue 4, pp 441-454,
Open Access This content is freely available online to anyone, anywhere at any time.
Date: 10 Feb 2010

Thinking with external representations

Abstract

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 computation—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.