Pine cones, Affordances and Serendipity

Pine cones

The other day I was out walking with my family at a local National Trusts property, chatting about the emerging daffodils in the early morning sunshine, enjoying the chance to walk for walkings sake, and think and talk about topics away from work and study for a change.

Then suddenly I remembered that I’d left my bag of pines cones in the office.

I’d collected a large bag of pine cones the week before from under the trees outside my office, with the intention of bringing them home and turning them into fire lighters, but kept forgetting to bring them home. A friend had suggested this trick years ago, melt some old wax and then dip the pine cones just briefly into this and leave the wax to set. They can then be added individually to your fire just to give it that extra little boost to get hot quickly.

But why was I remembering this bad of cones now, in the gardens of Killerton House? Why could I suddenly picture the bag, an old orange Sainsburys carrier bag that I found spare in the office, miles away and in weekend mode? I was enjoying the flowers, watching my young son run up the hill, and chatting to my partner about what else we should do that weekend. Offices and Sainsburys bags of pine cones should be nowhere near my thinking.

Of course I’m sure you know the answer to that question, you’ve already guessed why my thinking changed, it’s a simple reason and we all experience it all the time. As I was looking where I was walking, and scanning the area around looking at the flowers, a pine cone happened to come into my field of vision. That was the trigger to change my thinking.

But just wait and think about that for a second - a pine cone just changed what I was thinking? An inanimate object managed to affect me so profoundly, moving my thinking from one thing to another instantly and uncontrollably? I didn’t want to think about my bag of pine cones in the office, but it seems I had little choice in the matter.


For me this is a clear demonstration of affordances theory in action, but perhaps a more abstract and unusual demonstration than is common. The concept of Affordances (a term coined by James J. Gibson in the 60’s and 70’s) was invented to try and understand what the environment we live in, and the objects that we encounter within it, might “provide or furnish” for us. They are part of a wider theory of direct perception which tries to understand how we perceive the world around us without using an information processing model of “perceive, decode, compare, analyse” etc., and have proved very useful in a number of fields, especially design and human-computer action, but have also been picked up by many people working in the field of educational technology.

A classic example of affordances for the pine cone might be that I can pick it up and throw it - it fits my hand, and the weight it just about right to allow me to send it quite a long way. I could also burn it, and it would give off a pleasant aroma (to me at least). I can perceive that the pine cone affords these things  directly, I do not need to analyse it and compare it to memories of pine cones I’ve known and loved over the years - perception is direct.

Another key aspects of affordances is that they are relational, so in this context my son might be able to pick it up too, but he could not throw it as far as me and could certainly not use it to knock something over far away. Nor would he have any conception that he could burn it, or that it would produce a pleasant smell. Affordances are personal and relational.

But back to the pine cone in the wood and the bag of pine cones in the office, what is it about affordances that is significant here? Affordances are not only relational, the perception of any specific affordance is down to intention. There are many, many, many affordances in the world around us, but we only attend to those that have specific meaning to us in our own personal context. Paying attention to all of the affordances all of the time would simply be impossible. What I found interesting about the pine cone experience was that because pine cones in general were currently salient to me, i.e. I had been busy gathering them lately (and indeed had already forgotten to bring the bag back home on two separate occasions) this particular pine cone stood out in the environment and led to a series of cognitive events which I had not actively instigated. The pine cone acted as a type of trigger for some other intention which was related to pine cones more generally. It ‘afforded’, if you will, a concrete trigger for an intention (or goal) which I had yet to complete.


This brought to mind the concept of serendipity, something defined as “a ‘happy accident’ or ‘pleasant surprise’; specifically, the accident of finding something good or useful while not specifically searching for it.” (Wikipedia, Serendipity) I couldn't help wondering whether or not that’s actually something of a myth, for the last bit at least. We may not be specifically searching for something, but nonetheless we need to have the conception of something we might need in our heads if we’re ever going to find something else which matches that need, i.e. something good or useful. The happy accidents are probably much less accidental than we think they are - chances are if we didn't have something vaguely in mind already, we’d never notice anything in the environment that might match a need in the first place.

This is matched with the conception of ‘prospectivity’ an idea described by Eleanor Gibson (James Gibson’s wife, and also a psychologist of note), which is to do with the fact that we live not at a fixed moment in time, but in a continuing stream of time. Prospectivity is best understood as the planned action that we have in our heads which is linked to an intended outcome, that our behaviour begins within us and is linked to something that will happen in the world as a result of own actions. In relation to the pine cone experience, I would argue that because I had already had a prospective use for pine cones, and indeed had already done some work collecting them, I was primed to notice them in the environment, I was ‘attuned’ to pine cones, albeit unconsciously.

The upshot of all this seems to be that we’re not the masters of our world that we think we are, detached observers and rulers of our environment, capable of independent and unbiased action. We are in fact deeply entwined with our environment as we experience it, and it feeds back on us just as much as we feed back on it. The idea that we are always in control, that our decisions are all conscious and well thought out simply isn’t born out in reality, much of what we think is not a result of what we want to do with the environment, but what the environment is doing to us.

If you accept this simple fact, then this can actually be a powerful way of using the environment around you to help ‘scaffold’ your own thinking. Objects can be rearranged to prompt thinking, visits planned to stimulate or soothe, triggers set to remind or reinforce. I often place objects in specific places in my environment for just this reason, to prompt me to remember or think about a specific thing at a specific place. A classic technique I use is to tie something to the handle of my front door, as a reminder that there is something I need to do before I leave the house. Just like the classic knot in the handkerchief, but placed at a specific location in the environment so that the trigger is activated when I reach that location. Often that in itself, a seemingly random act of tying pretty much anything to a door handle, is enough to trigger the correct memory. It seems to creates an abstract affordance for recall, what might be considered an example of distributed cognition. I've actively used something in the environment to 'hold' some of my thinking for me, to distribute it into the environment.

I think behind all this lies a powerful way of working with both the natural and artificial environments we have created - and it holds particular promise for the realm of digital environments which is only just emerging (something which I’m busy exploring right now). The natural world is, after all, somewhat limited in what is possible within it, whereas the digital world ...

Anyhow, I have some pine cones that need dipping in wax. I hear there’s a cold spell on the way :-)

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