The ability to maintain arbitrary sequences of items in the mind contributes to major cognitive faculties, such as language, reasoning, and episodic memory. Previous research suggests that serial order working memory is grounded in the brain's spatial attention system. In the present study, we show that the spatially defined mental organization of novel item sequences is related to literacy and varies as a function of reading/writing direction. Specifically, three groups (left-to-right Western readers, right-to-left Arabic readers, and Arabic-speaking illiterates) were asked to memorize random (and non-spatial) sequences of color patches and determine whether a subsequent probe was part of the memorized sequence (e.g., press left key) or not (e.g., press right key). The results showed that Western readers mentally organized the sequences from left to right, Arabic readers spontaneously used the opposite direction, and Arabic-speaking illiterates showed no systematic spatial organization. This finding suggests that cultural conventions shape one of the most "fluid" aspects of human cognition, namely, the spontaneous mental organization of novel non-spatial information.
- Concept Formation/physiology
- Memory, Short-Term/physiology
- Space Perception/physiology