Barbara Tversky: Spatial Cognition
Have you ever wondered why you can recognize and remember things but can’t describe them in words? That is one of the questions that started Barbara Tversky’s contrarian research and academic career, leading to her theory that spatial thinking is the foundation of abstract thought. While most people were focused on language as central to human thinking, Barbara recognized that our relationship with the spaces we inhabit, including mental ones, provided a unique way of understanding the world. In her book, Mind in Motion, Barbara shows how spatial cognition is the foundation of thought and allows us to draw meaning from our bodies, our movements and the spaces around us.
We find Barbara’s work to be incredibly fascinating, especially as we consider the current approach to AI and technology design. While there is an extraordinary amount of investment being made into language AI, Barbara’s work causes us to wonder about the opportunities for AI that taps into our spatial reasoning. We’re just starting to scratch the surface of this idea in our design work and thank Barbara for uncovering the idea and sharing it in her wonderful book.
In this episode, we talk with Barbara about spatial thinking as the foundation of abstract thought, the linearity of spaces and perception of distances, putting thought into the world, the creative power of sketching, self-driving cars, aphantasia (aka lacking a mind’s eye) and the confusion between sight and navigational ability.
Barbara Tversky is an emerita professor of psychology at Stanford University and a professor of psychology at Teachers College at Columbia University. She is also the President of the Association for Psychological Science. Barbara has published over 200 scholarly articles about memory, spatial thinking, design, and creativity, and regularly speaks about embodied cognition at interdisciplinary conferences and workshops around the world. She lives in New York.
P.S. Thanks to Jonathan Coulton for our music.