When most people hear the word space, they think of astronauts, moon landings, and the galaxy. But the reality is that space is much simpler – and much more pervasive – than any physics problem in a textbook. Psychologists have been studying how we reason and mentally conceive of everyday space for over a hundred years. In this field of spatial cognition, psychologists study how people think about objects and locations and the relative spatial relations between these things in the world.
People, even infants and children, use space to track the items they see, and to navigate to out-of-sight friends and items. Space is also the ultimate organizational tool, which is probably why every neat person’s favorite mantra is “A place for everything, and everything in its place.”
All this organization pays off with a big boost to our ability to take in, and retain, random lists of items. In the surprisingly serious world of competitive remembering, the top players all use a method called the Memory Palace. In this ancient technique, each of the hundreds of random words or numbers the players need to recall is visualized, and assigned to a certain spot, in an intricate and well-traveled mental image of their house or other effortlessly known location. When it’s time to recall these items, these expert mnemonists take a spatial journey, and rattle off – in order, no less! – what they’ve visualized.
“We have an everyday, effortless ability to mentally reason about number, without the use of symbols and writing.”
As it turns out, we all have a little expert mnemonist in us. Mentally associating particular items with particular parts of space comes naturally to us. This use of space as a “scaffold” for memory is especially irresistible when we are reasoning about space’s close relatives – number and mathematics. As with space, number doesn’t have to refer to complex symbolic equations that require years of education, reading, and writing. We have an everyday, effortless ability to mentally reason about number, without the use of symbols and writing (sometimes called a number sense). Even infants can tell apart a pile of three toys from a pile of ten, and can estimate what the outcome would be if you combined those two piles.
Starting in infancy – and perhaps, as early as 36 hours after birth – humans think that small amounts (such as 4 dots on a screen) belong to the left side of our field of view, and large amounts (such as 20) to the right side. We intuitively associate the concept of less with left, and more with right, creating our very own, ready-to-use set of spatial associations. These spatial associations come in handy for organizing and relating numbers to each other, from the preschool years all the way to visualizing multivariable equations in college.
Culture’s influence on children’s spatial awareness
By the time children are three or four, these spatial associations have changed. For children in Westernized cultures, where the dominant language is scripted from left to right, this willingness to associate left with less, and right with more, blossoms into a more-general strategy. When conceiving of anything with a robust sense of order, such as the letters of the alphabet, the information learned first is mentally associated with the left side of space, and the information learned last with the right side. But children who live in the Middle East, where the culture is dominated by text that is scripted from right to left, show the opposite pattern. For these young learners, ordered information is more readily remembered if it is presented from right to left.
“Caregivers act as spatial guides, pointing to words on the page and laying out items in ways that echo the culture’s dominant language.”
How could this shift happen so quickly in the first few years of life? For many years, psychologists have known that adults’ spatial awareness was influenced by our mature reading and writing systems. It makes sense that constantly shifting our attention from left to right, or right to left, would lead one type of visual processing to be more readily available. But the children who show these culture-specific patterns of spatial reasoning are barely able to write a single letter, much less read and write script.
The roots of this early change lie instead in the behavior of those around them. They reflect the toddler’s eager absorption of how parents and caregivers read, write, and gesture. Caregivers act as Hebrew speaking parents emphasize space as moving from right to left from the beginning to end of a sequence or story, while English-speaking parents do the opposite.
Using space as a scaffold for acquiring literacy and numerical skills
Scientific theory is one thing (and an important thing). But the looming question now, in light of these findings, is how can we use this information to enhance children’s everyday learning? This specific body of research is too young to have resulted in large-scale interventions, with specific guidelines. But as a scientist in the field, and parent to two young children, I’ve started to implement some takeaways in my daily interactions. I’m mindful of how I point out letters in a word when sounding it out, with more organization and a concerted effort towards focusing their attention in a well-structured way.
When we do a jigsaw puzzle together, I reference the picture on the box with rich spatial language, and explicitly discuss grouping in space as an easy way to put piles of different colors for each distinct object. I’m especially aware of the usefulness of spatial structure for my younger son, who is still learning to count and write. As with physical scaffolds, this mental scaffold is probably most useful when information is just being built.
So, I pay extra attention to a well-structured environment when teaching him new or difficult topics, in the hope that appealing to his natural spatial cognition will ease the learning burden. Only time will tell if this is truly effective. But when I see him notch his finger from left to right while softly counting “eleventeen… twelveteen… one hundred”, I smile and take satisfaction knowing that he does, very occasionally, pay attention.
The Cognitive Development Society (CDS), which aims to provide a unified voice for the wide range of scholars, practitioners, and others who are interested in change and continuity in the intellectual processes that support mental life, held their 2017 biennial meeting in Portland, Oregon, on October 12-14. The program included cutting-edge research on analogy, imagination, executive function, risk perception, spatial cognition, numerical cognition, moral cognition, causal inference, and language development. More information about the program can be found here.
The author of this blog post, Koleen McCrink, will speak about ‘Interactions of Space and Arithmetic: Operational Momentum in Preschool Children’ during the CDS Conference.