Writing and how we think

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There have long been scholars who try to show that writing systems have been important players in world history (e.g., the Chinese system vs. the alphabetic ones). Chris of Mixing Memory reports some interesting data which suggests that these sort of conjectures need not just be hypotheses, at least on the first order level of effect:

However, recent evidence argues against this explanation. Several studies have shown that adults who learned to write in a right-to-left writing system (as in Hebrew), as opposed to left-to-right (as in English), tend to put agents on the right and patients on the left, with actions tending to be represented as moving from right to left. In other words, the inherent spatial aspect of action representations could be a product of the writing system we use, rather than the wiring of our brain….

…The fact that the children who couldn’t write didn’t show the bias, while adults educated in left-to-right and right-to-left writing systems showed opposite, language-consistent biases in agent placement strongly suggests that it is the writing system, and not the innate wiring of the brain, that our action representations are inherently spatial.

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2 Comments

  1. That’s a pretty neat result. 
     
    One question on “innate organization of the brain” affecting spatial thinking that I’d like to see investigated is: In what direction do people look when they’re thinking through a problem, especially when they are trying to find a clear way of explaining something to someone else in person (like teacher and student). I always look up and to the left — it seriously hurts to look to the right at all in this situation (although to the left and down is tolerable). I noticed several profs in college doing the same thing. Maybe the neuroscientists can tell me if that means I’m activating the right hemisphere of my brain or not… 
     
    It would also be interesting to see if this differed by profession / academic field, as well as by language spoken, controlling for race of course.

  2. agnostic, One of the results I didn’t mention comes from the aphasic studies. They found that they had trouble with the agent-object-patient sentences when they oriented their bodies to the right, but not the left. It’s in the Chatterjee 1995 paper, I think.

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