21-22 Rudolph Field Research Fellow

Spatial cognition in an Amazonian culture: How the Tsimané conceptualize space


Project Abstract

A long Western tradition in philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience has assumed a universal about the human mind: Humans experience space primarily relative to their own bodies (Kant, 1768; Piaget & Inhelder, 1956; Levinson, 2003, Milner & Goodale, 2008). However, a third of all languages do not use relative frames of reference (e.g. using words for left and right, or for front and back) to talk about space. Instead, they talk about space using words like north and south, which are grounded in an absolute frame of reference (e.g. ‘I left by bag on the southern edge of the western table in your house’). Do people who talk about space using an. absolute frame of reference also think about space in terms of an absolute frame of reference? Tsimané of the Bolivian Amazon habitually use absolute spatial reference frames when they speak. The goal of the present study is to determine the reference frame that the Tsimané use when they are thinking, not speaking. If Tsimané speakers not only talk about space in absolute ways, but also habitually represent space using an absolute frame of reference, this would suggest that the long-held assumption that humans experience space primarily relative to their own bodies might be wrong. This raises the possibility that this long-held tradition partly reflects the biases of Indo- European languages, rather than a fundamental structure of human minds.



Yağmur is a PhD student in the psychology department. She holds a BA in psychology and philosophy from Koç University, Turkey. She is interested in how people use space for thinking and communicating and how spatial thinking differs across ages, cultures, and history.