On-line and off-line, or who ate my toast?

A mate gave me some home-made marmalade, so I slapped some on my toast and sat down to enjoy it with a cup of tea. Ten minutes later I looked forlornly at a crumb dusted plate and realised I’d eaten it but hadn’t tasted it.

I’d been pondering my blog and not paying attention to the here and now. This common experience – a side-effect of being conscious – has engaged spiritual teachers from (at least) Buddha to Eckhart Tolle as well as cognitive scientists. The latter make a useful distinction between on-line and off-line cognition. On-line cognition deals with live tasks that require fast moment-by-moment processing; eating toast, for example. We switch to slower, off-line cognition when we need to check on something odd or plan future behaviour. You’re probably using on-line cognition now. Watch your awareness as you read: “The old man the boats”.

I’d guess you used on-line cognition as you started to read that sentence (from Meyer and Rice, 1992), but had to re-read it off-line to get the meaning.

One of my key themes is the importance of place in cognition, but location is irrelevant for some off-line cognition. When you’re ‘in your head’, imagining some ‘what-if’ scenario, you’re off-line and place is fairly irrelevant. But on-line cognition is in the moment, so place is fundamental. Just remember that next time you eat some toast.

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