Back to listing

Indigenous languages hint at sixth sense

Evolution, Felicity Meakins

Date: 11 June 2021

Magneto-reception is not a common term, but it is one that most people are nonetheless familiar with in practice. It is a form of geocentric orientation, a hard-wired ability found across the animal kingdom. Most people can name at least one animal that undertakes seasonal migration or has homing skills — behaviours enabled by magneto-reception, which is a geocentric orientation to the planet’s geomagnetic field.

Homing pigeons, bees, and even dogs are sensitive to magnetic forces. Humans might be, too.

At a recent lecture in the Synapse seminar series, CoEDL CI Felicity Meakins discussed her research on whether Gurindji people’s use of language reveals a human ‘sixth sense’ — an awareness of Earth’s magnetic field. Felicity’s work seeks to expand on the findings of scientists at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), who traced reactions in the human brain to simulated geomagnetic stimuli. While the reactions were significant enough to suggest magneto-receptivity, none of the participants were conscious of their brains’ sensitivity to the magnetic forces. But then, all the participants grew up in Western, English-speaking contexts.

Gurindji, and many other Indigenous languages across Australia, use cardinal directions to position objects in space, e.g., the pencil is to the north of a book. This is a geocentric system and contrasts with, for example, English speakers, who use egocentric orientation. English speakers (and speakers of other contemporary Western languages like Dutch and French) use terms like ‘left’ and ‘right’ to refer to spatial orientation, effectively describing the location of one object relative to their body or to another object (e.g., the pencil is right of the book).

Gurindji has a highly complex system of cardinal directions. For example, there are 31 ways of saying ‘north’ (and then multiply this by four!). Gurindji people’s use of the cardinal directions is unerringly accurate and applies to unfaceted objects (e.g., the east side of the tree, when a tree doesn’t necessarily have a distinct eastern side) and objects in small-scale space (e.g., the Vegemite is south of the toast). Felicity and a Gurindji research assistant Cassandra Algy tested the use of cardinals in small-scale space using a director-matcher task, where the director described the position of two objects on minimally different pictures to a matcher who had to pick the same card.

This linguistic expression of space is reflected cognitively. Felicity and Cassandra have tested Gurindji speakers’ use of geocentric orientation in a simple task involving placing animals in a row. Participants view a line of figurines: cow, sheep, pig. They then turn 180 degrees, are handed the figurines, and are asked to place them in the same order. People with egocentric orientation, e.g., English speakers, place the animals relatively — if the cow was to their right, it remained on their right when they realigned the figurines. When Felicity tried this with Gurindji speakers, all participants gave absolute responses when reordering the animals. This held true even across generations of speakers who use cardinal directions in language differently, suggesting a strong underlying cognitive connection to geocentricity that isn’t always revealed in language use. 

Figure 4: Levinson, S. (2003). Space in Language and Cognition: Explorations in Cognitive Diversity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Felicity’s hypothesis is that people with absolute orientation are more conscious of magnetic fields. She hopes to test her theory by running the same study conducted, to this point, only on people with egocentric orientation. The latter group may have lost touch with this ancient ‘sixth sense’, or the amount of magnetic ‘noise’ generated by modern technology could have confused the system that senses magnetic forces. 

Working closely with Gurindji speakers, Felicity’s next step is to fly with a few members of the community to Caltech to work through the ethics and logistics of the study. For now, things are moving carefully, not only because of travel restrictions, but also because of a deep awareness of the colonial history of experimenting on Indigenous people. 

“This attention to cardinal directions has cognitive and perhaps neurological effects that show that Gurindji people have a mental map of the world probably anchored in the trajectory on the sun, but which is constantly in operation regardless of what time of day it is,” Felicity says. Although this work surprises Western research, Gurindji people are unsurprised. They know they are firmly embedded in Country and this way of being in the world finds its expression in their language, spirituality, and cultural practices.”



Header: Cassandra Algy conducts the director-matcher tasks with Aliana Smiler (director) and Conway Herbert (matcher). Photo: Felicity Meakins.

Figure 4: Levinson, S. (2003). Space in Language and Cognition: Explorations in Cognitive Diversity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  • Australian Government
  • The University of Queensland
  • Australian National University
  • The University of Melbourne
  • Western Sydney University