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Cultures think differently about space
How do different cultures think about space? Is there one universal strategy or do spatial language and spatial cognition vary across cultures? The latter seems to be the case, researchers have known for some years. Dutch children talk and think about space in relation to their own bodies, whereas children from a Namibian hunter-gatherer group use compass directions. MPI researchers Daniel Haun and his colleagues recently discovered that these differences persist in more difficult tasks and after training. Last week, their online publication appeared in Cognition.
January 31, 2011
Despite the fact that physical space is the same everywhere on earth, cultures vary substantially as to how they talk about it. Some, for example, use words such as ‘left, right, front, back’ while others prefer notions like ‘north, south, east, west’. While seeming unusual to us, the latter system, with utterances like 'There is a scorpion by your northern foot!' are commonplace in other cultures.
Spatial memory tasks
The question whether not only spatial language, but also spatial cognition varies across cultures has a long tradition at the MPI for Psycholinguistics. In this newest publication we compare spatial memory tasks by Dutch children and children from a Namibian hunter-gatherer group called ≠Akhoe Hai||om.
'We found that children who preferably talk about space in relation to their own bodies (Dutch) also use a similar strategy when memorising locations of objects around them', says Daniel Haun of MPI's Comparative Cognitive Anthropology group. 'Similarly, ≠Akhoe Hai||om children who preferably talk about space using compass directions also remember where objects are based on a similar system. For example, if I memorise a row of toy animals as heading right, after a 180 degree rotation I’ll arrange them heading right again, but if I memorise them as heading North, after a 180 degree rotation I’ll arrange them heading left, which will be North. We found that these differences are maintained even if the task gets much harder.'
Haun and his colleagues also trained children of both communities to use the strategy that is preferred by the other group. Participants were not easily able to switch strategy on demand, and even after training, their attempts to do so resulted in many errors. These results add to the growing evidence that even some of the most basic domains of human thought - such as spatial cognition - vary cross-culturally and that these differences are not just superficial traditions, but differences in the ways cognition works in members of different cultures Haun concludes: 'There is nothing more fascinating than meeting someone who looks at the same world, but thinks about it in fundamentally different ways.'
Link to the publication.
Haun, D. B. M., Rapold, C. J., Janzen, G., & Levinson, S. C. (2011).
Plasticity of human spatial memory: Spatial language and cognition covary across cultures. Cognition. Advance online publication. doi:10.1016/j.cognition.2010.12.009.