Of course, this isn’t the first time science has attempted to prove the uniqueness of the Asian mind. There was Swarthmore President Alfred Bloom’s 1981 book, The Linguistic Shaping of Thought which claimed:
that the lack of a subjunctive tense in Chinese made it extremely difficult for native speakers to explore “counterfactual” conceits (for example: if Gisele were fat, she wouldn’t be a supermodel).
When Mr. Bloom tested Chinese and American students on a series of counterfactuals, he found that the Chinese students were typically unable to distinguish between events that really happened and false hypotheticals. The implication, Mr. Bloom argued, is that Chinese is more concrete than English, and, as a consequence, Chinese speakers have more trouble with abstract thought than Americans.
However, his research methodology was seriously flawed. In fact, poor translation may have been the problem:
Terry Kit-Fong Au, a native Chinese speaker and psychologist at Harvard, did not take kindly to this linguistic slight of his presumed powers of reasoning. He repeated Bloom’s experiment with one crucial change: he asked Chinese bilinguals to translate an idiomatic Chinese version of the story into English. With this translation his results were in the reverse direction from Bloom’s. Only 60% of American high school students who read the nonidiomatic versions understood the counterfactual, whereas 97% of Au’s monolingual Chinese subjects who were given an idiomatic Chinese version grasped the significance of the counterfactual.
More recently, there have been claims that Japanese have unique brains as a result of their language.
A lot of these discussions invoke the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. Unfortunately, they rarely have anything to do with what Sapir or Whorf actually said.
I can’t get online access to the original scientific article cited by the Associated Press story for another six months, so I can’t tell if what we have here is poor science or (more likely) simply poor reporting. But I have a big problem with the conceptual leap taken between the following two statements:
The researchers, led by Hannah-Faye Chua and Richard Nisbett, tracked the eye movements of the students — 25 European Americans and 27 native Chinese — to determine where they were looking in a picture and how long they focused on a particular area.
“They literally are seeing the world differently,” said Nisbett, who believes the differences are cultural.
There is a big difference between how we see pictures and how we see the world. I am ready to accept that there are cultural differences (perhaps dependent upon our various traditions of visual representation) that affect how we “read” a picture, but I’m not sure that these translate into differences in how we see the world – or even what that might mean.
Paul Messaris’ 1994 book, Visual “Literacy”: Image, Mind, and Reality has a fairly good discussion of the state of scientific research on reading images at that time. He is primarily concerned with debunking the myth that people who have never seen a picture need to be taught how to understand visual representations. Accordingly, he recounts several studies which suggest that understanding two dimensional, black-and-white representations of the world, even abstract ones, is fairly intuitive. He highlights how such issues as the materials used and the nature of the images being portrayed can have a huge impact on reader’s ability to interpret an image.
A 1960 by William Hudson study found South African miners having difficulty interpreting smaller animals in the background as being further away; however, his study turned out to suffer from many of the same problems as Bloom’s study of Chinese counterfactuals:
The Africa depicted in these pictures — a loincloth-wearing, spear-carrying hunter in a landscape populated by big game — might still have been a reality in some parts of the continent when the research of Hudson and his successors was taking place, but it seems doubtful that the kinds of people who were actually studied in this research — South African mine laborers, Ugandan farmers — would have much direct contact at all with such situations. On the contrary, it is possible that, for many Africans, familiarity with that particular version of Africa may actually be more likely to occur secondhand – for example, through pictorial media.
Consequently, those subjects who were more experienced with pictures might also have had greater previous experience with the kind of hunting scene depicted in Hudson’s pictures, and this familiarity, rather than knowledge of pictorial codes, might account for their superior ability to form an integrated, three-dimensional percept. Data supportive of this possibility occurred in the Kilbride and Robbins study (1969), in which 10 percent of the rural residents accurately identified the picture of the elephant as that of a large animal but were apparently uncertain as to the exact nature of the animal, calling it a hippopotamus, a rhinoceros, and so on. This uncertainty is consistent with the fact that the only large animal likely to be found in their own immediate environment would be a cow.
So, when Japanese and American’s are asked to look at underwater scenes and Japanese spend more time describing the background, it may not be because of “differences in perception go back at least 2,000 years,” it may just be something simple – like the fact that Americans eat a lot less seafood and aren’t used to seeing pictures of fish. It may also be that differences which have been observed in eye movement when reading Chinese and English may account for different habits of visually scanning a printed page – whether text or image; but these differences might not necessarily reflect how we visually scan the real world around us.