BreMM17 | Atã & Queiroz

Pedro Atã & João Queiroz
Linnaeus University | Sweden & Federal University of Juiz de Fora | Brazil

Multimodality in Distributed Cognition:
An Analysis of Challenges of Improvised Oral Poetry

Here  we  describe  multimodality  as  a  property  of   distributed   cognitive systems operating in problem spaces and inhabiting cognitive niches. We develop our argument based on examples of challenges of  Brazilian  improvised  oral  poetry. Our approach is grounded on the distributed and situated cognition perspective in Cognitive Science and Philosophy of Mind. We follow Davies & Michaelian (2016) in (a) identifying cognitive systems as systems involved in the performance of cognitive tasks/problems (and not the other way around: cognitive tasks as the tasks performed by a cognitive system), and (b) individuating them in terms of task-relevant informational exchange, so that a cognitive system includes whichever external or internal entities contribute for solving a task, and can include more than one agent, thus being distributed. Observed in a larger temporal scale, cognition is a process in which the action of distributed cognitive systems endows environments with cognitive artifacts and endow communities of agents with different necessities and goals. The co-dependent relationship between the nature of cognitive tasks, the properties of cognitive artifacts and the properties of cognitive systems form a cognitive niche, inside which specialized semiotic and cognitive activity develops.

In challenges of improvised  oral  poetry,  improvisational  performers (such as repentistas — traditional oral poets in Brazil —, and, more internationally known, rappers) perform remarkable feats of linguistic prowess, generating poetry according to strict rhythmic, metric, and semantic constraints. The performers employ several strategies for making these constraints immediately available, such as dancing to the beat of music being played, directly playing musical instruments, and relying on visual information of the surroundings to develop semantic themes. In our description, the improvisational challenges are understood as problem solving tasks that define distributed cognitive systems constituted by the performers and the artifacts with which they engage.

Moreover, these distributed cognitive systems act in accordance to the cognitive niches of their respective traditions of improvised oral poetry. We conclude, first, that making the constraints of a problem space immediately available through different modalities is used as a strategy for optimizing cognitive performance in these tasks; second, that multimodality is not only a strategy but a constitutive part of the cognitive niches themselves and how they embed and direct cognition.


Davies, J., & Michaelian, K. (2016). Identifying and individuating cognitive systems: a task- based distributed cognition alternative to agent-based extended cognition. Cognitive Processing, 17(3), 307–319.

Biographical Note

Pedro Atã is a Ph.D. candidate at Linnaeus University Centre for Intermedial and Multimodal Studies, in Växjö, Sweden. His main research interests include distributed cognition, Cognitive Semiotics, and Niche Construction Theory applied to Cultural Evolution