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Mind in Motion

How Action Shapes Thought

Mind in Motion by Barbara Tversky

This was a intriguing book in two ways: first, the subject matter was fascinating, which wasn’t a surprise as that’s why I was reading it, but secondly, I found the prose style delightful. I’ll come back to this later: let’s start with the contents.

It’s all about spatial thinking, and how the way space itself – via gestures, and the metaphors we derive from it – shape the very fundamentals of the way we think. Abstract thinking isn’t “abstract” at all – it’s based on spatial metaphors. We don’t think with words inside our head, we think in (abstract) space in there.

From a personal point of view, this really struck a chord. I was a mathematician and then a computer programmer, and still play with both, and in these worlds I almost always find myself thinking spatially about problems, imagining I’m moving this variable or data structure from here to there, or twisting it in some way to change its form or use. Spatial thinking, Barbara Tversky contends, enables us to draw meaning from our bodies and their actions in the world.

One of the excellent things about this book is that it’s all based in experiment. Hundreds of different experiments underpin the picture that is painted herein, with practical applications everywhere from things that are obviously spatial – how to draw better assembly instructions or navigation instructions – through the physically laid out – comic strips – to the abstract – how to come up with a larger variety of original designs.

As I said, I also came to love the prose style of Barbara Tversky. It beautifully combines short sentences, long sentences, simple words, technical jargon, sentence fragments, lists, the whole gamut, in such an elegant and rhythmic way. Here’s a random example, where she’s talking about tree diagrams:

“The enormity of the influence of tree diagrams on the accumulation and dissemination f knowledge has not been fully recognized. Trees, knowledge, brain. By now their uses are uncountable and their visualizations myriad. The Big Bang, phylogenetic trees, corporate trees, occupational trees, decision trees, diagnostic trees, linguistic trees, knowledge trees, probability trees, family trees, the list goes on. And on.”

All in all, a great book. Four and a half stars.

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