One would think that at least our understanding of space was universal. An inch is the same length wherever you are in the world, a mile isn’t shorter if you are measuring straight up or side ways, or whether the observer speaks Hindi or Chinese or Swahili. But actually, both Einstein’s theory of relativity and quantum physics argue against this. Einstein demonstrated that time and space are relative, and quantum physics says that even concepts like inside and outside, near and far, up and down don’t operate in the quantum world the way we expect. Even here in our world of everyday, our concepts of space are much more culturally influenced than most of us appreciate.
My husband, for instance, has a better sense of direction than I do. But when I ask him what direction we are going in, he often doesn’t know. His sense of direction isn’t based on the fundamentals of north, south, east and west. He understands cardinal directions, of course, but they aren’t always essential to him. For me, if I’m the map reader, and I can’t put us on the map at least mentally, my response is that we need to ask someone for directions. Peter, on the other hand, will keep going. I used to think it was male vanity that didn’t want to ask for help. But he found his way too often for me to continue to hold onto this hypothesis. His sense of direction simply operates differently. And it frustrates the life out of me that I don’t have a clue how he does it!
I read another study recently comparing the sense of direction of an Aboriginal group who do not learn left and right as we do, but only north, south, east, and west. Along with a comparable group of Westerners, they were led through a tangled maze of buildings, repeatedly turning this way and that. At the end, the Aboriginals were much better at orienting themselves than the Westerners, and could identify north accurately, while the Westerners could not.
I can see that for a hunter-gatherer society, the Aboriginal sense of direction would be a much more valuable survival skill than depending on knowing one’s left and right. But I wonder if there are skills in a developed society where being able to identify one’s left and right would be as important. Though knowing to set a table with the fork on the left and the knife on the right doesn’t seem quite significant enough to matter that much, does it?
Either way, it does suggest that the measurement of spatial skills in traditional IQ tests may be culturally biased. So if I’m ever lost in a desert or jungle, I’m going with the Aboriginal.
Unless you have a compass, of course. And even then…