Skills in Space

Mind in Motion: How Action Shapes Thought is a great book by Barbara Tversky.  
In this book, she argues that spatial thinking is the foundation of all thought, including abstract thinking.
When there are too many thoughts to hold in mind, we put those thoughts into the world in various ways, and the way we put ideas into the world is similar to how the ideas are stored in our minds.

Sidney Harris –

The embodied cognition is the result of the sequence of seeing, imagining & doing. Perceiving and acting/knowing make the bridge in between the different states.
The impact of this embedded experience and information processing in the body is made obvious by some general facts, like

  • Associations to names are more abstract than associations to pictures
  • Representations during speech, created by hands and by words, are wildly different.
    Sometimes, people’s gestures contradict their speech.
    In those cases, pay close attention to their gestures.

Maybe the easiest benefit you can get out of the book are the 9 laws of cognition, based upon the embodiment of information as well in exchange and cognition. Some I would like to mention are

  1. There are no benefits without costs
  2. Action molds perception
  3. Feeling comes first
  4. The mind can override perception
  5. Cognition mirrors perception (Spatial mental frameworks can organize ideas)
  6. ..
  7. The mind fills in missing information
  8. ..
  9. We organize the stuff in the world the way we organize the stuff in the mind. (E.g. a distant focus is accompanied by generalities, abstraction, and greater certainty, whereas a close focus is accompanied by specifics, details, and greater uncertainty)

The book provides wealth of samples on how we have a direct link with the space around us to create our ideas. As a geoscientists – I wanted to know all about cartography – I’m pleased to read the importance of experiences positioned in the surrounding space, the gestures, and the benefits of being well-educated in geography, cartography, and generalization of maps.

Some discoveries from this book and worth mentioning are:  

  • Distant spatial perspective induces people to think more abstractly. 
    Creative problem solving is more likely to happen when taking a distant perspective.
  • The impact of your ‘reference to space’ on your thinking.
    Especially if the perspective you take is egocentric or allocentric.

This ego/allocentric perspective-taking might have impact on how we perceive information, communicate it, and construct our thinking. It all starts with how we describe space and events, be it referred to our ego (individual position), or to a generic external reference. This relates to a problem that was solved for theater stages in the 18th century by the references to coté-cour and coté-jardin. 

You can easily detect the difference in perspective when people use a map e.g. to find their way in a city. Do they hold the map as printed (mostly North up – or in some cultures a different direction), or ‘moving forward’ up, suggesting a tendency for allo- or egocentric preference.

Taking this idea somewhat further, the distinction from egocentric to allocentric people might influence what people take as a reference framework for ideas and information, even not related to topics beyond spatial sensu stricto. Recent research refers the importance of this egocentric reference with respect to a (lack of) empathy and moral values. As such, the egocentric person will take the information and judge it on personal references, an ‘egocentric’ judgment, because the observer makes moral evaluations solely from her own perspective. Having a more distant view allows evaluation that accounts different positions, creating an ‘empathetic’ case in which the observer takes the perspective of another person, which assumes some capacity for recognizing the relativity of the situation, and the opportunity to evaluate ideas into a broader context.

What stand outs in this discussion, is the challenge to designers of AI solutions. The book describes the importance of this embodies cognition and the feedback with space and motion. Machines have – up to my knowledge – not yet such an embodied cognition. Their reference in space is not comparable to what the 3,5 billion years of biological evolution created for humans, and what we experience every moment. Egocentric and allocentric references, spatial experiences and projections, empathic capabilities are still a challenge in the world of AI.

Curious about how this hurdle can be taken ….

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