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Sometimes it’s the simplest studies that reveal how deeply culture shapes our thinking.

Take a 2009 experiment involving only a researcher, a child, and a two-word instruction.1 The researcher announces, “Let’s dance!” and demonstrates a series of movements: He holds his hands together at eye level and extends them—first to the left, then to the right, then to the left twice, counting with each movement (“One, two, three, four!”). After a few tries, eventually all the children could do the dance on their own. Now comes the test: The researcher spins the child around, to face the other way, and asks her to perform it again. Try this on your friends and they will probably reproduce the dance faithfully—left, right, left, left—as did most of the 50 German children in the study.

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But the researchers also tested another group of kids, 35 members of an indigenous hunter-gatherer culture in northern Namibia. When spun around 180 degrees, after learning the routine, most of them performed a mirror image of the dance: rightward moves became leftward moves, and vice versa. Why? The researchers concluded that, when the Namibian children did the dance the first time, they memorized it as alternating between different sides of the world (north, south), not different sides of their body (left, right). The children were apparently dancing according to compass points.

“Through the senses we know what is outside us only in so far as it stands in relation to ourselves,” Kant wrote.

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If you find this behavior startling, you are in good company. The venerable philosopher Immanuel Kant argued that the three primary divisions of the human body—front and back, above and below, left and right—provide the fundamental framework for experiencing space. I can think of the dishwasher in my kitchen, for example, as to the right of the sink, or my keys as being in my left pocket. Kant thought this egocentric frame of reference was basic and universal. “Through the senses we know what is outside us only in so far as it stands in relation to ourselves,” he wrote.2 Humans cannot distinguish cardinal directions, he continued, without first distinguishing left and right. The Namibian children, though—defying Kant, not to mention a number of 20th century cognitive scientists—prefer to view space through a different, geocentric framework.

They’re hardly alone. Beginning in the early 1990s, a research group at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, in the Netherlands, led by Stephen Levinson, began a concerted effort to understand how cultures around the world differ in their favored “spatial frames of reference.” And they found groups much like the Namibians far and wide, in Australia, Mexico, India, and beyond. My colleagues and I, for example, have studied the geocentrically minded Yupno, of Papua New Guinea, who parse spatial scenes, no matter how large or small, in terms of uphill and downhill. This isn’t to say that I, as an English speaker, never use the geocentric frame; I just employ it selectively, when describing the relationship between two cities, for instance (San Francisco is north of Los Angeles), but not when talking about, say, where stuff in my house is, though it’d be just as accurate.

It’s tempting to assume our own habit of framing the world “in relation to ourselves” is the natural default, the intuitive starting point; the way the Nambians or the Yupno frame things seems deviant. But a new set of findings, recently published in Cognitive Psychology, suggests this is the wrong impression.3

One clue has been there all along: Psychologists have known for decades that left and right are tough to learn. Children spend years putting their shoes on the wrong feet, mixing up their ‘b’s and ‘d’s, and using the words at random before they truly master them, usually not until they are around 10 years old. In fact, many of us still struggle with the terms as adults (hence the expression, “No, your other left”). What this new research does, though, is directly compare kids’ understanding of egocentric concepts like left and right with their understanding of geocentric ones like north and south. Does one frame of reference come to them more naturally than the other?

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To test this, the researchers taught four-year-old children new spatial terms, using the made-up words ziv and kern. The most telling of the experiments, involving 20 English-speaking kids, went like this. First, the researchers labeled the child’s arms one at a time: “This is your ziv arm [touches child’s left arm]. And this is your kern arm [touches right arm].” Then, as in the 2009 study, the researchers spun the kids around and asked them to hold up their ziv arm. In another blow to Kant, 73 percent of the time the four-year-olds held up their right arm, the one just labeled kern.

Recall that these are American kids—they are not getting such geocentric tendencies from their language or their culture. Yet they were biased to assume that these new labels meant something like north and south, even when applied to their left and right arms. (The reason they behaved more like the Namibian kids than like the German kids, who are more culturally similar, may be that the German kids in the dance study were eight-years-old on average, and had already adopted a culture-specific bias.) The researchers also found it easier to teach four-year-old kids geocentric words than egocentric words (though the egocentric terms front and back are intriguingly much more intuitive for kids than left and right).

So it seems some spatial concepts really do come to us more easily than others, but not the ones we might have assumed. It makes one wonder: If it’s such a struggle to learn the left-right frame, how did we come to view much of the world through this peculiar lens, and why?

Well, in today’s world, we do not have much of a choice—telling left from right is a matter of survival. We drive on one side of the road but not the other, for instance. A deeper question might be: Why have we as a culture decided to swim against the tide of our cognitive biases? Why bother with a distinction—left versus right—that is hard to learn and that many cultures do mostly without?

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One view is that it all follows from language. By some historical accident, different languages have enshrined different ways of talking about space and we’ve just internalized the habits of whatever language we’ve been dealt. A more compelling alternative is that language is just a symptom of a deeper cognitive change that has only recently been set in motion. Perhaps the early stages of industrialization—involving more time spent indoors and in dense cities, more reading and writing, more moving from one place to the next—forced us to shift our ways of carving up space. It wasn’t a choice to adopt another spatial frame of reference or some accident, in other words, but an adaptation to new conditions.

Further studies with children could offer hints about how this shift played out. Children in our culture start with a geocentric mindset, but grow into a staunchly egocentric one. What factors drive the switch? The answer would offer hints about what led us, at some point in our cultural past, to start to view the world through the peculiar lens of left and right

Kensy Cooperrider is a cognitive scientist at the University of Chicago, where he studies metaphor, spatial thinking, and other topics. Follow him on Twitter @kensycoop.

The lead photograph is courtesy of Jaysin Trevino via Flickr.

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1. Haun, D. B. M., & Rapold, C. J. Variation in memory for body movements across cultures. Current Biology 19, 1068–1069 (2009).

2. Levinson, S. C., & Brown, P. Immanuel Kant among the Tenejapans: Anthropology as Empirical Philosophy. Ethos 22, 3–41 (1994).

3. Shusterman, A., & Li, P. Frames of reference in spatial language acquisition. Cognitive Psychology 88, 115–161 (2016).

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