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Review of  Spatial Dimensions of Social Thought

Reviewer: Stephen Stanley Lucek
Book Title: Spatial Dimensions of Social Thought
Book Author: Thomas W. Schubert Anne Maass
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
Linguistic Field(s): Cognitive Science
Issue Number: 23.2262

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EDITORS: Schubert, Thomas W. and Maass, Anne
TITLE: Spatial Dimensions of Social Thought
SERIES TITLE: Applications of Cognitive Linguistics [ACL] 18
PUBLISHER: De Gruyter Mouton
YEAR: 2011

Stephen Lucek, Centre for Language and Communication Studies, Trinity College Dublin

Written by the attendees of a small Expert Meeting, co-hosted by the European
Social Cognition Network and the European Science Foundation, and held in Venice
in 2008, these 13 essays (plus Introduction) span the breadth of modern spatial
cognition research. The very notion of spatial cognition, like most topics in
cognitive science, appears to be intuitively clear on the surface. However, the
depth of research and theory contained in this volume demonstrates how intricate
and applicable spatial cognition really is.

To this end, the authors represent a wide distribution across academia from
Epidemiology to Neurology to Psychology. This distribution informs the ensuing
discussion and allows for a considered approach to spatial cognition. While
linguists are thin on the ground here, there is plenty of cross-disciplinary
application to be found in these essays.

The Introduction goes some way to explaining the book’s central themes. A brief
overview of the embodied cognition approach and biases on the horizontal plane
are offered as baselines for many of the essays that follow, which are broadly
divided into two sections: Section A concerns spatial embodiment, while Section
B deal with the horizontal plane and biases.

In the first essay, Tversky deals with the imperfect nature of spatial
knowledge, how it can be skewed and how it can be experienced. Grouping objects
together by type and by size is just one way in which we can manipulate space in
order to make tangible the abstract notion of space. Another way is by metaphor
and the proclivity to humanise spatial experiences through bodily metaphors
(e.g. head of committee, foot of a mountain). Finally, locating objects in the
world and the use of frames of reference present Tversky with a final method of
realising space through language.

Santiago, Román and Ouellet follow with their comprehensive review of the
flexible foundations theory of abstract thought. This review begins with Solid
Foundations View (SFV) which itself is an amalgamation of various theories from
Conceptual Metaphor theory (CMT): image schema derived from repeated exposure to
stimuli (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980, 1999; Gibbs & O’Brien, 1990; Johnson, 1987).
These image schema allow for the development of metaphors. As such, metaphors
provide the real-world groundings of SFV. Weaknesses of CMT (namely, the lack of
universality of primary metaphors (see Rakova, 2002 and Kövecses, 2005)) are
exploited in such a way as to necessitate the Flexible Foundations Theory (FFT).
Numerous examples of cognitive flexibility emerge from evidence of, inter alia,
antithetical metaphors (e.g. time-moving) that exist inter- and
cross-culturally. At the centre of FFT is the existence of multiple parallel
metaphors and models residing in the long-term memory without conflict. These
metaphors and models inform the working memory, allowing divergent experiences
of similar stimuli. Two experiments are described and the results show that the
flexibility of working memory to adapt metaphors and models along with its
ability to learn novel solutions provides for the possibility of a flexible
foundation for abstract concepts.

Estimates are the focus of the third essay. Liberman and Förster discuss the
four dimensions of judging psychological distance in the absence of direct
experience: temporal distance (when), spatial distance (where), social distance
(who), and hypotheticality (likelihood). Their thesis is based on two
assumptions about psychological space: that the four dimensions listed above are
interrelated and that mental construal is needed to make up for not experiencing
the distance directly. A review of literature that has tested these dimensions
leads the authors to the conclusion that spatial distance is a primary
experience that can be understood via the dimensions listed above.

In the fourth essay, Schnall explores factors that influence the perception of
personal space. We see here a bigger emphasis being placed on embodiment: from
embodied cognition, a line is drawn to embodied perception and judgment tasks.
Variables from national borders to the mood of the informant to carrying a
weighted knapsack are described and linked to a commonality of perception.

Power metaphors are the focus of the fifth essay. Here, Schubert, Waldzus and
Seibt discuss the ubiquity of power and how it is perceived in the physical
world. From there, metaphors are linked to real world experiences and as such
are reciprocals of one another. Height, facial features and posture are
described as variables that lead to the perception of power non-verbally which
can be interrelated and can also be applied to abstract shapes. Semantic
network, Simulation and Conceptual metaphor theories are all considered as
explanations of how the space/power interface works for non-verbal cues. The
authors then propose a model of schematisation and reification of perceptual
symbols combining the individual experience with the cultural experience.

Part B begins with Chatterjee’s treatment of directional asymmetries. Event
structure is proposed as primarily existing in on a left-to-right trajectory in
left-to-right reading cultures with the agents to the left and
recipients/patients to the right. Thus, an examination of the orientation of the
subjects of portraits shows four potential explanations for the preference of
right cheek depiction (signifying agency) over left cheek depiction (signifying
passivity): gender bias, historical shift, social distance, and character
attributes. Inferences by viewers of these portraits lead to assumptions of
power and implied motion. Reading and writing direction mitigates the effects of
left-to-right biases in perception of power and implied motion.

Brady’s essay on face perception makes the case that there is a left-right bias
in perceptions that reflect an asymmetry in the brain. Again, there is a
preference in left-to-right reading and writing cultures for left-left composite
images, whereas that preference is inverted for right-to-left reading and
writing cultures. This holds for familiar faces and unfamiliar faces (see Brady,
Campbell & Flaherty, 2004, 2005). This leads to the question of hemispheric
asymmetry and its effect on perception biases and word recognition. The
conclusions point the reader towards a hemispheric asymmetry bias rather than a
reading and writing direction bias as the impetus for face perception preference.

Representational drawing is the medium of choice for the eighth essay. Vaid
examines the directional asymmetry. The possible sources for this asymmetry are:
hemispheric asymmetry, reading and writing direction, neuromuscular limitations,
and motoric influence. Each of these sources is fully explained and explored in
detail and recommendations are made for future research.

The effect of reading direction in nonverbal tasks is the focus of Chockron,
Kazandjian and De Agostini. It is the acquisition of reading and writing skills
that prove to be the impetus for directional biases in nonverbal tasks, but that
is not to say that these biases are not present before the acquisition of
reading and writing. However, a consensus cannot be drawn from the limited
amount of right-to-left reading and writing data. The future of research in this
area lies here.

The analysis of artwork leads Suitner and McManus to conclusions on Spatial
Agency Bias (e.g. Chatterjee, Maher & Heilman, 1995; Maher, Chatterjee & Rothi,
1995). The scientific study of art becomes a fertile meeting point where new
ideas in both disciplines can flourish. Explanations for biases in art history
range from agency to sex of the artist and stereotypes of roles within cultures.
An important point that the authors make here is that the inferences drawn from
extant research can be applicable not just to high art, but also to contemporary
visual media.

Suitner and Maass return the focus to embodiment in their essay on writing
direction as it applies to agency and gender stereotyping. Different types of
orthography and writing direction are considered in detail as a foundation for
spatial biases. Here, we are not dealing with reflections on visual media, but
rather how spatial biases influence spatial expression. A brief treatment of the
origins of writing systems lends credence to their arguments and provides an
avenue for further research.

The final essay stays with gender issues and concerns biases in graphs contained
within scientific journal articles. Hegarty and Lemieux contend that there is a
general bias in graphical representations of data that goes beyond random
chance. Placing male results before female results is a byproduct of gender
biases based on power and agency and varies between disciplines within academia.

On the whole, this collection of essays gives a broad picture of the spatial
elements of social psychology. It goes beyond a mere pulse-taking of this area
of study. Several of the essays (Santiago, Román and Ouellet; Schubert, Waldzus
and Seibt; Brady; Vaid; Chockron, Kazandjian and De Agostini; Suitner and
McManus; and Hegarty and Lemieux) emphasise the need for future research and
position their own papers as starting points of open-ended questions.

Another strength is the repetition of and expansions on themes. The embodiment
view is a common methodological jumping-off point that runs through both
sections of this collection. Viewed purely as a subset of essays on writing
direction, this volume provides a wealth of knowledge and provides an excellent
guide to what has been done in the area. An equal emphasis on right-to-left
reading and writing systems would have added gravity to the discussion. That
being said, the overwhelming argument from the authors here is that not enough
research has been carried out on right-to-left systems.

There are a fair number of typographical and proofing errors in the book, but
none that detract from the essays. The length of the second essay is
disproportionate to the rest of the volume and may have benefitted from a heavy
edit, particularly in the literature review (sections 2 & 3). While this essay
does introduce a novel concept in metaphoric projections -- and read on its own,
it most likely would stand up as a very strong essay -- its inclusion in this
collection nearly eclipses all around it. Perhaps a discrete volume is to
follow, as the Flexible Foundations Theory is certainly worthy of consideration
and application.

While much of this volume will not be of interest to linguists, it is certainly
a multidisciplinary effort. The heavy emphasis on social psychology (as the
title suggests) is evident. That being said, there is a great deal of
cross-disciplinary appeal and applicability. For those who work with writing
systems, this will be a particularly interesting read.

Brady, Nuala, Mark Campbell & Mary Flaherty (2004). My left brain and me: a
dissociation in the perception of self and others. Neuropsychologia 42, 1156-1161.

Brady, Nuala, Mark Campbell & Mary Flaherty (2005). Perceptual asymmetries are
preserved in memory for highly familiar faces of self and friend. Brain &
Cognition 58, 334-342.

Chatterjee, Anjan, Lynn M. Maher & Kenneth M. Heilman (1995). Spatial
characteristics of thematic role representation. Neuropsychologia 33, 643-648.

Gibbs, Raymond & Jennifer O’Brien (1990). Idioms and mental imagery: The
metaphorical motivation of idiomatic meaning. Cognition 36, 35-68.

Johnson, Mark (1987). The body in the mind. Chicago: The University of Chicago

Rakova, Marina (2002). The philosophy of embodied realism: A high price to pay?
Cognitive Linguistics 13, 215-244.

Kövecses, Zoltan (2005). Metaphor in culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lakoff, George & Mark Johnson (1980). Metaphors we live by. Chicago: The
University of Chicago Press.

Lakoff, George & Mark Johnson (1999). Philosophy in the flesh: The embodied mind
and its challenge to Western thought. New York: Basic Books.

Maher, Lynn M., Anjan Chatterjee & Leslie J. Rothi (1995). Agrammatic sentence
production: The use of a temporal-spatial strategy. Brain and Language 48, 105-124.

Stephen Lucek is currently a PhD candidate in the Centre for Language and Communication Studies at Trinity College Dublin, where he is carrying out a sociolinguistic and semantic study of the language of space in Irish English. His research interests include language change, dialect contact, global Englishes, communities of practice, discourse analysis, corpus linguistics and cognitive semantics. He has previously worked as an editor.