How Humans Understand Space

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Stella Lourenco and Leslie Taylor


On October 29th, Stella Lourenco (Psychology) and Leslie Taylor (Theater Studies) led a fascinating discussion on the topic of how humans understand space. The speakers covered a broad array of material, ranging from the contemporary cognitive scientific study of spatial cognition to the history and nuance of stage design. Stella and Leslie effectively conveyed the deep complexity of the question at hand, emphasizing that we understand space in multifarious ways based on our various aims and activities. Indeed, both speakers underscored that adequately addressing this issue requires thinking in term of “frames of reference”—a multifaceted notion, in its own right.

The Cognitive Scientific Study of Spatial Cognition

In her portion of the presentation, Stella introduced the cognitive scientific study of spatial understanding, highlighting some central themes and current research. One area of controversy concerns the modularity of spatial understanding. As defined by Jerry Fodor, cognitive modules are hardwired systems involving domain-specific processes that are informationally encapsulated (i.e., cognitively impenetrable by information from outside domains). Fodor speculated that we possess at least several different modules, each dedicated to unique sensory tasks (e.g., visual perception). Stella presented research indicating that at least one aspect of spatial understanding—our capacity to reorient in space—may qualify as a modularized process. In one set of studies, an infant is placed in a rectangular room that has an identical hiding place in each of its four corners. The infant first observes an attractive object being placed in one corner, and the infant is then spun around. Researchers found that in trying to relocate the hidden object disoriented infants tend to rely on geometric data (i.e., the shape of the surrounding space), consistently looking in one of two geometrically identical places, the corner where the object was placed or the diagonal corner. This remained the case even when these geometrically identical corners were given different color markings; which might indicate that our tendency to reorient in space based on geometric information is cognitively impenetrable, a hallmark of modularized systems.

Stella outlined another recurring theme in the cognitive scientific study of spatial cognition: the important idea that human beings utilize “different frames of reference” or perspectives in conceptualizing space, which likely involve unique cognitive processes. For instance, a common distinction drawn in the literature contrasts an egocentric versus allocentric understanding of space. The former involves thinking about and experiencing space in relation to self, in terms of ‘front/back,’ ‘left/right,’ etc.; whereas the latter stance is oriented more towards the general environment, e.g., ‘north/south,’ measures of latitude/longitude, etc. As Stella noted, contemporary researchers typically hypothesize that these distinctive modes of spatial understanding are cognitively dissociable and follow unique developmental trajectories.

Highlighting a further level of complexity, Stella delineated differences in spatial cognition at both the group and individual level. For instance, at the group level, there is evidence of gender differences in direction-giving and route planning, as men appear to rely relatively more on geometric (e.g., distance and cardinal direction) versus non-geometric (e.g., landmarks) cues. At the individual level, research suggests that the way we egocentrically represent space—specifically, our intuitive sense of “near” versus “far”– varies as a function of body size. As Stella noted, researchers in a variety of psychological fields have picked up on the idea that each of us has a sense of “near” space, referred to variously in the literature as the “body buffer zone,” “personal space,” “grasping space”, “peripersonal space,” etc. Researchers can study the size or range of this zone by graphing the results of a simple line bisection task, in which subjects are asked to identify the center of a line using a laser pointer from a variety of distances. In general, we tend to show a left-bias at near space, which shifts to a right-bias as we move out to far space. However, the distances at which these standard biases emerge vary from individual to individual, as some people appear to have a much larger sense of near space than others. Interestingly, it turns out that these are typically individuals with larger body sizes. Hence, it appears that this facet of egocentric spatial cognition varies individually on the basis of body size. Stella also described further research indicating that other individual factors, such as physical exertion or social-emotional disturbances, can alter the perceived size of near space.

Theatrical Frames of Reference

Leslie’s presentation emphasized a different sense of spatial “frames of reference.” As a stage designer, Leslie focused on the historical development of theatrical stages, tracing a movement from the open-space, outdoor productions of Ancient Greece to the more contained, indoor staging characteristic of contemporary theater. Leslie underscored that, throughout, a primary goal of theatrical design has been to find effective means of framing the action on stage for the audience: based on an enduring idea that theatrical performance should unfold against a backdrop. Much like a picture, a play needs a frame. The Greeks began by incorporating constructed designs on stage, such as wooden houses. During periods when theatrical stages were unavailable, designers utilized unique framing devices. Leslie memorably described, for instance, “Medieval slide-shows” in which productions were presented by a sequence of wagons and carriages. She further outlined the famous Shakespearian “O” theater style, and the gradual shift towards the illustrious indoor theaters of the Elizabethan Period. As Leslie noted, this movement from outdoor to indoor staging marked the birth of modern stage design, as new staging techniques, playing with perspective, lightning and illusion, were developed to enhance the action within a more intimate and tightly-controlled space. In recounting this historical development, Leslie animated a unique kind of spatial understanding, helping the audience to view space from the perspective of a stage designer: a distinctive approach focusing on the dynamic interplay between theatrical space and performance. Indeed, one of the points she made that really hit home was that while stages are created to accommodate performances, the converse is true as well. The kind of plays that are written in a given period are also inspired and constrained by the staging techniques of the time.

During the question and answer period of the lunch, Leslie revealed other interesting secrets of the trade. For instance, she noted that one general rule of stage design is to avoid symmetrical arrangements. She also discussed the different way that space is framed on film as compared to the stage. In general, space feels more constrained on film, as viewers witness the action from a particular perspective, based on the kind of shot (e.g., a close-up) that is utilized. In contrast, theatrical space is a more open medium, allowing for greater variation based on one’s position in the audience. Indeed, as film became more popular, playwrights and stage designers began to experimentally manipulate the space between actor and audience. As an example, Leslie described “environmental” plays—where actors move freely throughout the audience—which were part of the “experimental theater” movement of the 1960’s and 70’s. Finally, Leslie offered a brief glimpse into the mind of an actor, describing how the space on stage is viewed differently from this perspective. According to Leslie, rather than losing themselves in the surroundings, actors are usually keenly aware of the fact that they are on a set with props—adopting a more allocentric perspective than one might suspect.

Perspective-based Understanding

The interdisciplinary discussion led by Stella and Leslie covered a remarkable range of topics from a variety of perspectives. Stella focused on the cognitive scientific approach to understanding spatial cognition. As she noted, one guiding idea in this research program is the notion that we naturally utilize different frames of reference in our experience of space. For instance, there is the distinction between an egocentric versus an allocentric orientation. Of course, the theoretical stance of the cognitive scientist is yet another frame of reference that we can adopt in thinking about space. So, too, is the perspective assumed by stage designers, for whom spatial understanding takes on a unique significance, as Leslie artfully described. Here, the idea of a “frame of reference” takes on a double meaning: there is the general sense of perspective-based understanding referred to above, and the more specialized meaning from the world of theatrical production that Leslie characterized. Indeed, stage designers—who conscientiously work to frame the action on stage—might appreciate better than anyone the more general idea that our understanding of space varies based on perspective. The take-home lesson for me is that the complexity of human spatial cognition and experience demands a pluralistic style of analysis that works by incorporating insights from a variety of angles.

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