The mind at work

The Mind at work: Barbara Tversky on the primacy of spatial thinking


Published on December 12, 2019

A conversation with cognitive psychologist Barbara Tversky on how diagrams, gestures, and even comics, help people work better together.

What’s your workspace? Is it your desk, your office, the café, or the commuter train? Is it your computer, phone, a whiteboard, or a napkin? Is it the team meeting, or the serendipitous hallway exchange? Is it the concepts of your profession or your interactions with co-workers? 

Your workspace is all of these things, this mesh of different kinds of spaces that we move through in the course of our day. This movement is so natural that we may not even notice that we think about objects on our desk in similar ways as we think about ideas in our minds. We can sort ideas into piles, stack them up, take them apart, turn them over, and turn them into other ideas. When we move closer to one idea, we move farther away from others. And we don’t need words to achieve these manipulations, just the images in our minds and the feelings of our body in space. 

If this is an alien way of thinking about thinking, it’s because we’ve been trained to associate thinking with language, with the voices in our heads. But if there’s been anybody who’s reminded us of the primacy of being bodies moving through space with brains that also think in spatial terms, it would be cognitive psychologist Barbara Tversky. In 40 years of research she has forcibly argued that language and other higher cognitive functions clearly rest on a foundation of spatial thinking. Her recent book, Mind in Motion, builds the case strongly.

In one experiment, her lab demonstrated that gesturing while communicating is not only helpful to the audience of the communication, but also for shaping the thoughts of the person doing the communicating. When otherwise animated test subjects were forced to sit on their hands while explaining something, their lucid directions gave way to fumbling incoherence.

“I bring evidence to show that spatial thinking, acting in the world with the things in the world, is the foundation of thought.”—Barbara Tversky

Tversky, a professor of psychology at Stanford and now Columbia University’s Teacher’s College, makes a bold claim, and she’s very careful to define her terms. “I bring evidence to show that spatial thinking, acting in the world with the things in the world, is the foundation of thought,” she says, “not the entire edifice, but the foundation.”

Tversky’s interest in spatial thinking developed in counterpoint with the work of her late husband, the psychologist Amos Tversky, who collaborated with Daniel Kahneman (author of Thinking, Fast and Slow) on what eventually became their Nobel Prize-winning study of behavioral economics. Her early work reinforced theirs, showing systematic biases and errors in judgments of distance and direction in the use of maps, before branching off into the tradeoffs inherent in our identities as bodies moving in space.

Spatial thinking is something that we share in various ways with other parts of the animal kingdom. “Impressively, ordering things and even judging the relative magnitude of pairs of things are things other animals can do,” Tversky writes. “You don’t need language.”

As among animal species, so among human individuals, we all have varying degrees of spatial awareness and the ability to manipulate spatial structures in our minds. These abilities show up most strongly in the arts, sciences, and athletics, leading some people to conclude they’re just not visual or spatial. But we all have some amount of ability, Tversky points out, and these skills can not only be taught, they can be enjoyable to learn by people of all ages. “The bad news is those things aren’t taught in school,” she says. “We do teach reading, and mathematical and logical thinking, but often teachers don’t teach how to read graphs, how to read maps, how to understand three-dimensional arrays.”

And if these skills are not taught in schools, then they are far less likely to be showing up in the workplace, where they are sorely needed.

One of the most influential themes in Tversky’s work is the way that visual artifacts can improve collaboration. Joint action, when people coordinate their actions in time and space for a shared purpose, is now a burgeoning field in psychology and the social sciences—and increasingly in artificial intelligence. Joint action happens in space, even if it’s a virtual space of a computer screen or a digital network. “In my mind,” Tversky says, “some of the work on AI and robotics—and even human work with each other—isn’t taking account of the importance of being together and of joint action and joint facilitation.”

So what does it mean to take the spatial aspects of collaboration into account? How can we use the discoveries of Tversky’s research to improve the way we work together? In Mind in Motion, Tversky distills two cognitive design principles from decades of experiments on diagrams, route maps, and other forms of visual explanation:

  1. Principle of Correspondence: The content and form of the representation should match the content and form of the targeted concepts. 

  2. Principle of Use: The representation should promote efficient accomplishment of the targeted tasks.

Simply put, to communicate effectively you have to know your material and know your audience in order to map them well to one another. And these principles are often in conflict with one another. They amount to tradeoffs between the congruence of the representation with its content, and the receiver’s comprehension of the concepts and relations. These mappings have to be clear so that they are readily perceived and readily understood. 

To put this in the terms of one of Tversky’s experiments about communicating instructions for assembling a TV cart, effective explanations balance these two principles. A drawing that shows all of the individual pieces helps a person identify the parts. Step-by-step instructions tell them the order and configuration to assemble them in. These two approaches to representation come together in the world of schematic line drawings.

Nothing can get a roomful of people to, “I see what you mean,” quicker than a whiteboard sketch of the shape of the problem you’re trying to solve and the intervention you’re proposing.

In the workplace, the effective minimalism of diagrams can be very helpful. Nothing can get a roomful of people to, “I see what you mean,” quicker than a whiteboard sketch of the shape of the problem you’re trying to solve and the intervention you’re proposing. And, in defense of the much maligned medium of slide decks, breaking down explanations into discrete frames helps translate the abstract shape of the problem into a series of concrete steps toward a solution.

Segmentation is a concept that’s widely applicable to our everyday jobs, though not well-understood outside the cognitive sciences. When we process new information, we need to segment it into meaningful chunks that both correspond to the structure of the information but also the use we have for it. (Suggestively, our brains seem to follow these same cognitive design principles.) We categorize, for example, some parts of a project as goals and metrics, and others as timelines and tasks. In this way we’re able to map a complicated objective into a reasonable set of things to pay attention to. Problems arise when we don’t present information to our co-workers in a way that respects the segmentation of information that they need or expect. A lot of the “work about work” in contemporary office culture comes from team members needing to spend a lot of time interpreting the content they receive—breaking it into usable chunks—before they can act on it.

Gesture is also one of the greatest aids to segmentation. Gestures help your audience understand what you’re trying to get across by demonstrating the transformation of ideas and meaningful transitions between one thought and the next. They also help you formulate those thoughts, especially when you’re teaching, learning, or discovering something. 

Teaching, learning, and discovery should be the central aspects of knowledge work, but our office cultures offer far more status readouts than a-ha moments. “In teaching,” Tversky says, “it’s very clear that diagrams are truly effective. Diagrams abstract and show you the structure, and how parts are related to each other in a very direct way.” Although diagrams are static, we can activate them with gesture, either by pointing to them in a social setting, or using devices like arrows to identify specific dynamics. “We found over and over again, that gestures over and above speech have a deepening effect on learning and understanding,” she says. Taken together, diagrams and gestures are dual pillars of direct communication.

While the text-based abstractions of email and instant messaging have become the dominant mode for much of knowledge work, they’re no substitute for being there—being together in space facilitates communication. In an ingenious experiment in Tversky’s lab, pairs of subjects were instructed to work together with a map to determine the best route to rescue an injured person. The twist is that half of the groups were right next to each other and able to point to the same map, but the other half were separated by a shower curtain, with each partner looking at their own map. Because this sounds a lot like remote workers communicating through their screens, the results of the shower curtain groups are of particular concern. “They didn’t do as good a job.” says Tversky, “When people were face-to-face, the interchanges were more equal and balanced.” 

“That piece of paper becomes our product, not yours and not mine, so it’s a genuine collaboration that we’re both invested in.”
—Barbara Tversky

Not only more balanced, but better. The face-to-face teams were much more likely to arrive at the same optimal solution than the physically separated teams. Video conferencing can help restore some of the facial and gestural aspects of communication, “but having this unifying document that you can point to, a whiteboard or a piece of paper, I think that has a lot of positive roles in planning and in interacting,” says Tversky. “For one thing that piece of paper becomes our product, not yours and not mine, so it’s a genuine collaboration that we’re both invested in.” Amy Edmondson describes the role of whiteboarding during the Fukishima accident in similar terms.

Just as proper segmentation reduces the cognitive load imposed by a communication, so do strategies for offloading our thinking into the physical world, which includes other people. “Findings come out every day of how the two of us are together and our brains are in sync,” she says. “That’s less likely to happen if we’re remote.” As if to make this point, just prior to this part of the conversation, her video signal failed and for the rest of the call we were missing those rich visual and gestural cues that give rise to the bodily entrainment she describes.

It’s important to explain here that Nobel Prize-winning research on grid cells provides strong evidence that the brain uses similar methods to track the proximity of ideas and concepts in the mind as it does for the spatial position of physical things in the world. Spatial thinking is a general-purpose set of tools applicable to everything we think about. 

Tversky’s work on how people think and communicate about maps and routes extends into the conceptual realm as well. In the route-finding experiments, subjects draw pictures from verbal instructions of how to get to a landmark and then have others extract verbal instructions from those pictures in order to see what remains constant. Overwhelmingly, she’s found that the visual-spatial representation underlies the verbal. This says a lot about how we navigate conceptual complexity as well. Many of the challenges that knowledge workers face are multidimensional in the ways they cut across functional teams or areas of expertise. I suggested to Tversky that this was like having many maps of the same city containing different kinds of features and even at different levels of scale. How does the brain deal with this kind of spatial complexity?

In general, she explains, we look at maps to find routes and then we just follow the routes. If we’re trying to integrate multiple maps, we look for common landmarks and use those to find common routes. The tradeoff with the simplicity of relying on routes is that if we get lost we have no idea where on the map we are (aka the GPS problem). To Tversky, this is a central issue of management. Individual workers are just concerned with the routes they need to navigate an organization, but the manager needs to understand the whole map. “So sometimes bosses are accused of not having empathy, but it’s partly that they’re having to have empathy for 100 people. And you, as an employee, only think of your route to get your work done.” One of the tensions of our current ways of working is that you no longer have to be a big boss to need to navigate a large organizational map to be effective in your job. The complexity of all these maps of information is overwhelming, and Tversky says, “sometimes we just shut down and say, ‘It’s too much, I can’t integrate them all!’” 

“The mind gets overloaded and one way we deal with that is by putting it on paper, expressing it in words, expressing it in gesture.”
—Barbara Tversky

These external devices, like maps, diagrams, and even apps, are all ways we offload our thinking into the world around us. “The mind gets overloaded and one way we deal with that is by putting it on paper, expressing it in words, expressing it in gesture,” she says. These expressions, in turn, help spur new thought, creating a kind of circular causality. We use our feet to move through space and our hands to move things in space. “I’m arguing that those two are the basis of our abstract thinking,” Tversky says. “We’re making those relationships explicit by actions of our body, and then abstracting them in our minds until our minds overflow. And we have to put them outside again in some more abstract way so we can work with them.”

As our work becomes more abstract and technical, both spatial abilities and joint action will become ever more important. Gestures are particularly effective for activating diagrams when the abstract thing you’re trying to describe has a temporal or motion aspect. Many attempts to animate these visualizations fall short of comprehensibility. Animated sequences are often too fast for us to capture the inherent hierarchical organization of concepts. The advantage of sequences of still images is that people can move through them, back and forth, at their own pace, aiding their understanding. Much of the function of animation, Tversky has found in her research, can be achieved by devices like arrows and guide lines that draw our attention to salient points.

Tversky is actually quite a fan of comics as a way of communicating complex information, and of Scott McCloud’s classic Understanding Comics as an invaluable starting point. “Unlike stories in prose, they teach us how to look and what to look for—so important for a world that is increasingly using visual forms of communication,” she writes in Mind in Motion. It’s no accident that the main subject of comics are bodies in motion, often doing the impossible. Here she points to the innovative and transgressive nature of spatial thinking encoded in comics: “Keep in mind that the meta-rule of comics is: break the rules!”