Culture and Cognition

Can cross-cultural variation reveal cognitive universals?

Cultural experience, in addition to perceptuo-motor and linguistic experience, contributes to the creation of knowledge, and cross-cultural differences can demonstrate the diversity of the human conceptual repertoire. Yet, to the extent that our concepts depend on our cultural conventions and artifacts, these same cross-cultural differences can also provide powerful evidence for universal processes of knowledge construction.

Temporal gestures point to culture, not just language.
Experiments in collaboration with Julio Santiago (University of Granada) show that native Spanish speakers gesture leftward when talking about the past and rightward when talking about the future. By contrast, native Arabic speakers from the same university showed the opposite pattern, even though all participants lived in Spain and were speaking Spanish. These culture-specific right-left spatializations of time, which cannot be predicted based on linguistic metaphors in any language, reveal the stability of the mental representations shaped by non-linguistic cultural artifacts such as writing systems and calendars.

Mental metaphors without linguistic metaphors.
The Amondawa, an indigenous Amazonian group, do not appear to use spatio-temporal metaphors in language, although some form of spatial metaphor was long believed to be a linguistic universal. Amondawa also appear to lack any spatialization of time in cultural artifacts, such as calendars or timelines. But do the Amondawa still think about time using spatial representations? Experiments in collaboration with Chris Sinha and Vera de Silva Sinha (University of Portsmouth) are using a field adaptation of the psychophysical experiments developed by Casasanto & Boroditsky (2008) to find out. This collaboration provides a rare opportunity to distinguish the cultural-linguistic and perceptuo-motoric origins of a fundamental cognitive capacity.

Mental metaphors without language.
Psychophysical space-time tasks have been adapted for a group which lacks all human language and cultural artifacts: macaque monkeys. Experiments in collaboration with Elizabeth Brannon and Dustin Merritt (Duke University) test whether the asymmetric dependence of time on space in human language and thought is also present in monkeys. If the relationship between space and time in human minds arises due to their linkage in language and cultural artifacts, then these dimensions may be related differently in monkeys' minds. Alternatively, if humans' most primitive conceptions of time and space arise from perceptuo-motor interactions with the environment (and are only later influenced by language and culture), then monkeys and children should think alike.