The lens of culture is very subtle and tricky. To navigate and communicate effectively in another culture takes experience, knowledge, time, and wisdom. Unfortunately, today the topic of cross-cultural communication has reached the level of pop psychology. If you listen, the purveyors of this simplistic version of culture awareness are still stuck in seeing the world through their own very Western lens.
To avoid being repetitive, I will link to my earlier posts on culture below. To understand how careful one needs to be when trying to understand other cultures, read them or better yet get a copy of the latest edition of the Samovar text and read it through. Then follow your reading up with any book by Paul Pedersen, such as this one.
And then you are ready to begin learning by going to other cultures and listening, watching, respecting.
I said that learning the art of cross-cultural communication takes time. What is time? Today I am posting a captivating story about how much cultures can vary, in this instance on the concept of numbers, counting—and time. Here's "Study Finds Twist to the Story of the Number Line," a news release from UCSD.
Tape measures. Rulers. Graphs. The gas gauge in your car, and the icon on your favorite digital device showing battery power. The number line and its cousins – notations that map numbers onto space and often represent magnitude – are everywhere. Most adults in industrialized societies are so fluent at using the concept, we hardly think about it. We don’t stop to wonder: Is it “natural”? Is it cultural?
Now, challenging a mainstream scholarly position that the number-line concept is innate, a study suggests it is learned.
The study, published in PLoS ONE April 25, is based on experiments with an indigenous group in Papua New Guinea. It was led by Rafael Núñez, director of the Embodied Cognition Lab and associate professor of cognitive science in the UC San Diego Division of Social Sciences.
“Influential scholars have advanced the thesis that many of the building blocks of mathematics are ‘hard-wired’ in the human mind through millions of years of evolution. And a number of different sources of evidence do suggest that humans naturally associate numbers with space,” said Núñez, coauthor of “Where Mathematics Comes From“ and co-director of the newly established Fields Cognitive Science Network at the Fields Institute for Research in Mathematical Sciences.
“Our study shows, for the first time, that the number-line concept is not a ‘universal intuition’ but a particular cultural tool that requires training and education to master,” Núñez said. “Also, we document that precise number concepts can exist independently of linear or other metric-driven spatial representations.”
Núñez and the research team, which includes UC San Diego cognitive science doctoral alumnus Kensy Cooperrider, now at Case Western Reserve University, and Jürg Wassmann, an anthropologist at the University of Heidelberg who has studied the indigenous group for 25 years, traveled to a remote area of the Finisterre Range of Papua New Guinea to conduct the study.
The upper Yupno valley, like much of Papua New Guinea, has no roads. The research team flew in on a four-seat plane and hiked in the rest of the way, armed with solar-powered equipment, since the valley has no electricity.
The indigenous Yupno in this area number some 5,000, spread over many small villages. They are subsistence farmers. Most have little formal schooling, if any at all. While there is no native writing system, there is a native counting system, with precise number concepts and specific words for numbers greater than 20. But there doesn’t seem to be any evidence of measurement of any sort, Núñez said, “not with numbers, or feet or elbows.”
Neither Hard-Wired nor “Out There”
Núñez and colleagues asked Yupno adults of the village of Gua to complete a task that has been used widely by