Mental Space

To mentally "place" something is to know where it belongs. If you can place a hundred thousand words or faces or ideas, you command great knowledge. Often too, such a store enables you to quickly solve problems. Growing evidence suggests that "placing" is not merely a metaphor, but that we really do inwardly arrange concepts in spatial frames to think about them or recall them. It seems, indeed, that having extensive mental "spaces" is a key to intelligence.

One of the great goals of cognitive science is to understand how spatial-thinking skills assist -- and are perhaps fundamental to -- human thought. The mechanisms involved are not conscious ones, so simply reflecting on what it means to place, arrange and retrieve concepts in our mental space will not make us any the wiser.

How then are we to observe humans storing and retrieving ideas in the mental space they construct? The evidence we can use is of the indirect type, but useful nevertheless.

Metaphors and analogy provide one such monitor, most famously in our tendency to speak of time as "before" and "behind" us. Gestures are a second and rich source of evidence, since the upwards, downwards and sideways movements of the hands seem to unconsciously describe the mental space we are using. It has long been known as well that our eyes move in sympathy with our thoughts, so that a dart of the gaze to a place where there is in fact nothing to see is an indicator that we may be navigating an "inner" space. The devices we invent to visualize or spatialize our ideas, particularly diagrams, are a fourth tangent into this mysterious human capability. As I noted some time ago in another blog post, observing the thinking processes of the congenitally blind is a fifth method of observing pure visuo-spatial cognition.

At the annual conference of the Cognitive Science Society which has just finished in Philadelphia, interesting evidence was produced in two of these approaches.

In one paper, Gesture reveals spatial analogies during complex relational reasoning, Kensy Cooperrider with Dedre Gentner and Susan Goldin-Meadow observed 19 students explaining stockmarket bubbles and takeovers with spontaneous gestures to elucidate these complex mechanisms. "The participants constructed these spatial models fluidly and more or less unconsciously," the paper notes. To me, this does indeed suggest a "spatial mind" contributing to human reasoning.

In another paper, Spatial Interference and Individual Differences in Looking at Nothing for Verbal Memory, Alper Kumcu and Robin L. Thompson used gaze direction to show that people use an imaginary mental space to remember things, in this case words. Some years ago, Martin Wallraff amusingly alluded to oral examinations where students say, "I can't remember what the book said, but I can remember exactly where on the page it said it." In this paper, the authors tested 48 students and found their eyes darted to the place on a tiny page where a word used to be, leading to the proposal that there is an "automatic, instantaneous spatial indexing mechanism for words" in the mind.

As always, these experiments must be treated with a degree of caution. The subjects were students whose native language is English. We do not know if the results hold true in other cultures, or for the uneducated, or at other times in history. But they do suggest that we may one day succeed in mapping the human mental space and that the objective of this blog - understanding the "natural" mindlike ways to arrange information on pages and in diagrams - is indeed full of promise.

Cooperrider et al. note, "The ubiquity of abstract spatial models like Venn diagrams, family trees, and cladograms, for example, hints at the wider utility of spatial analogy in relational reasoning."

Philadelphia also had a co-located diagrams meeting (mainly on Venn diagams) and a conference on Spatial Cognition, but the interesting papers from those events are sadly not online.

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