1 - The intellectual background: two millennia of Western ideas about spatial thinking  pp. 1-23

The intellectual background: two millennia of Western ideas about spatial thinking

By Stephen C. Levinson

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Spatial thinking is crucial to almost every aspect of our lives. We consult our spatial memories constantly as we find our way across town, give route directions, search for lost keys, try to find a passage in a book, grope our way to the bathroom in the night, and so on. The intricacy and importance of all this becomes apparent when it goes wrong. I recently saw a man reduced to near insanity because he had ‘lost’ his car in a huge airport parking lot (really, of course, he had lost himself). The Balinese, whose system of spatial description requires compass-like orientation, consider loss of cardinal orientation a sign of madness (‘Not to know “where north is” is to be crazy’, Geertz 1972: 446, cited in Wassmann and Dasen 1998: 693). The neuroscience literature is replete with exotic syndromes, where lesions in specific areas of the brain induce specific spatial inabilities, as in the following description of a patient with topographical amnesia:

Whenever he left his room in the hospital, he had trouble finding his way back, because at any chosen point of the route he did not know whether to go right, left, downstairs or upstairs … when he eventually arrived in front of his own room, he did not recognize it unless he chanced to see some distinguishing feature, such as the black beard of his roommate …

(de Renzi 1982: 213)

Spatial competence involves many different abilities, from shape recognition to a sense of where the parts of our body are with respect to one another, from navigation to control of the arm in reaching for something, and so on.

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Reference Title: References

Reference Type: reference-list

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