Thinking as spatial and based on movement

Language is emphasized as the main carrier of thought. But think of how many faces you know. You can recognize them but not describe them in words. Our brains use a huge amount of information every day that has no verbal representation. We think in more than words. We also think spatially.

Barbara Tversky describes herself as a contrarian because, as much as she loves words, in graduate school it occurred to her that they are insufficient to capture human cognition and communication. She made her career in the study of spatial thinking: how we act in the spaces that we inhabit, including mental spaces, and how movement in space forms the basis of abstract thinking.

Tversky describes how, when thought overwhelms the mind, we shift thought to space. In ancient times, people used maps, diagrams, and art to support cognition. Putting our minds in space in an abstract way appears to be distinctly human.

Our spatial reasoning contains distortions. When we stand on a mountain top and look into the distance, the distant mountains telescope and look like they are on top of each other. Mountains that are closer appear larger. These distortions carry through to the way space and distances are represented in the mind. If you live in San Francisco and you are asked about the distance between San Francisco and Salt Lake City versus New York City and Pittsburgh, you will think that the distance between San Francisco and Salt Lake City is more than between NYC and Pittsburgh, even though the distance between each is roughly the same. If you take the opposite perspective and you live in NYC, you will think the reverse.

There are many such distortions of our geographical memory that infiltrate our thinking. Another example is how people think the son is more similar to the father than the father is to the son, or how we believe that North Korea is closer to China than China is to North Korea. These asymmetries appear in our social and political memories too.

Moving our thinking into the world is at the core of how we use technology, and how we can imagine using technology. If you experience anxiety when speaking in public, virtual reality can be a cheaper and easier way to train for an event. Being able to take a virtual walk could be as useful for unlocking creativity as taking a physical walk.

Humans can do something with movement that most animals cannot. The ability to sync to a beat and subdivide time inside a beat is called entrainment. Bodies follow other bodies. Temporal entrainment enables social learning and experimentation. Humans can go beyond mirroring a toe-tapping beat as we try to mirror the complex movements of another human. We can intuit the intentions of others purely through movement. A performer’s pleasure is correlated with the audience member’s pleasure. “There is a “shared manifold” of feelings or even an “emotional atmosphere” that humans share with one another. IT’s not mystical or spooky; it’s just an under-recognized perceptual ability,” writes Stephen Asma.

Great Human Strength: We can move our thinking out into the world as a way of extending our cognition. We can draw, walk, share ideas with art or maps, and gesture to lead our thinking. We can use AI and other technologies as a core extension of our abstract reasoning.

Great Human Weakness: We have asymmetries and distortions in our cognition and communication that come from our spatially aware brains.

Machine Opportunity: Designs that leverage our spatial reasoning for good, reducing cognitive load or giving us additional reasoning power.

Machine Threat: Designs that reduce our cognitive capability by preventing us from accessing spatial reasoning.