Language seems to override an innate ability to understand spatial relations. Researchers compared Dutch adults and children, who describe a spatial relation from the point of view of the speaker, with a group of adults and children from a hunter-gatherer community in Namibia, who rely on a viewer-independent description of a space. Researchers hid a block under one of five cups in front of them and asked the subjects to find a similar block under their own set of five cups in front of them. The Dutch could locate the block more easily when it was placed in relation to the researcher (they may describe it as “the block to the left of the researcher”). The group from Namibia, however, fared better under absolute geocentric conditions (“the block is north of the researcher”). When four-year-old German children and great apes were tested, both preferred environment-centered processing. The difference between the German children and the eight-year-old Dutch kids who preferred egocentric directions suggests that language alters an innate preference, according to the study that appeared online October 30 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA.
This article was originally published with the title "Language Trumps Innate Spatial Cognition"