New research suggests that how our bodies move within our environment has a direct correlation to our thoughts and how we create mental schemas. Tobias Loetscher and his colleagues at the University of Melbourne in Parkville, Australia tested this by linking movement with our ability to generate random numbers and abstract thought. Researchers asked volunteers to produce a sequence of numbers while recording the vertical and horizontal movements of the their eyes as they spoke the numbers aloud.
They discovered that before selecting larger numbers, a volunteer's eyes would move upward and to the right, while the opposite was seen as they selected smaller numbers, their eyes shifting downward and to the left. The degree to which their eyes shifted in a particular direction emphasized to what extent the number being called out was larger or smaller than the last. We see in these seemingly disconnected experiences, eye movement and random numbers, examples of embodied cognition, how our physical experiences create our mental ones. For the volunteers, associations of up is more and down is less, and right is more and left is less, would have formed at young age, hard-wiring the brain as they saw physical manifestations of this concept, like building blocks being stacked upwards.
Unclear of whether movement could produce and direct abstract thought, Daniel Casasanto of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, examined how associations for up being good and down being bad can affect our mood. Casasanto and his team asked participants to move marbles from a higher shelf to a lower shelf and vice versa while discussing with them events that had highly positive or negative emotional implications.
Participants were found to move considerably faster in retelling stories whose action correlated to the emotional context of the event, i.e. moving marbles up the shelf while discussing a positive experience. When asked emotion-neutral questions, participants moved marbles from one shelf to another, narrating positive stories when moving the marbles upwards and negative when moving downwards.
Casasanto reasoned that if motion can direct thoughts, then people who move differently should also think differently. Researchers asked groups of left and right-handed people to distinguish between two cartoon characters by attributing them with personal characteristics. The vast majority of participants displayed a left or rightward preference, with left-handers attributing positive characteristics to the cartoon shown on the left, while the same was true for right-handers and the cartoon shown on the right. "Righties think right is good, and lefties think left is good," Casasanto concludes.
How we interact with our environment, how we move, directs and reflects the mental constructs we form as a child and continue to develop as we broaden our understanding of our reality and how we choose to interpret that reality.
Would we develop different mental constructs if we were different bodies interpreting a different environment? Linguist and philosopher George Lakoff says, "people assume that mathematics is objective and that everybody will have the same math, but there is no reason to believe that." If intelligent life exists, it they would have developed very different abstract thoughts, perhaps even a mathematical system entirely different from our own.
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