Friday, December 05, 2014

psych experiment

In Dr. Richard Nisbett's very interesting—if not exactly surprising or revelatory—The Geography of Thought, the good doctor explores differences between Eastern and Western modes of thinking. Today, with my advanced-level reading/writing students, we began the final chapter of our textbook, which was all about the brain and the mind. We watched a couple videos that I'd found regarding change blindness (specifically, the classic "Invisible Gorilla" and the well-known "Door Study"); watched the video attached to our textbook, which was about Jody Miller, a little epileptic girl with only half a brain; and looked at the famous brain scan of the Frenchman whose skull is nearly empty except for a thin layer of brain matter around the inside of the cranium. Along with these images, I decided to shoehorn a little Nisbett into the lesson, so I ran some of my kids through a psychological experiment mirroring some of the experiments in The Geography of Thought.

To do this, I drew a picture of an aquarium on the whiteboard. I populated the aquarium with a few random fish, then in the aquarium's "foreground," I drew two men fighting each other, under water, with swords. I then asked my students to describe this odd tableau. One student said, "It's a fish tank, with fish in it, and there's a filter thing in the corner of the tank (yes, I drew a pump/filter thingy), and there are two men fighting." A second student said, "This is an aquarium; there are fish, and there's two little guys sword-fighting." A third student said, "I see a fish tank, with two guys with swords who are fighting in it."

This is exactly what Nisbett said would happen: Eastern culture tends to be "field-dependent," i.e., every element of a tableau is subordinate, in priority, to the overall context. As a result, in each case, my students began their descriptions not by mentioning the two combatants in the foreground, but instead by talking about the fish tank as the framework for the tableau. As I told my kids, an American viewing the same scene would more likely say something like this: "I see two guys fighting inside a fish tank." My point was that how we think is at least partially culturally determined: Westerners tend to focus more on discrete objects and individuals, giving overall context less of a priority, while Easterners tend to prioritize context, pointing out individual elements only after having described the "field."

The students responded well to the lesson. With the remaining few minutes, we played a quick game of Password as a fun way to drill vocabulary from the chapter. I wasn't able to get as far as I'd wanted to get in the lesson, so I just assigned the remainder of the first half of the chapter as homework for the students to do and review next time. In all, it felt like a fairly productive day.



Charles said...

Interesting experiment. I've read GoT as well, so I know exactly what you were getting at. As I read your post, though, a weird thought came to mind: do you think the mother tongue has anything to do with the order in which the students describe the elements of the picture? I realize this is a rather flimsy theory, and I suspect that it would fall apart if applied to Chinese, but in the case of Korean or Japanese, the natural order of language is opposite of what we would get in English.

So, like you said, an American might say "I see two guys fighting inside a fish tank." But a Korean would say "어항에서 남자 두 명이 칼싸움하고 있다." It would require significant linguistic acrobatics to mention the fish tank first.

If this idea has any merit, the next question to ask would be the chicken-or-egg question: Are Koreans field-dependent because of their language, or does their language reflect their field dependency? (Option 3: Or is it a feedback loop?)

Just spitballing, as usual.

Kevin Kim said...

Good question. I think you've touched on a notion that indicates how complex the topic really is: I'd agree that language definitely has an influence here. It's a commonplace in linguistics to say that thought determines language, and language determines thought. Perhaps it's useful to think of language, in a Venn diagram, as a subset of culture, which would be in line with saying that culture affects thought.