How we remember things is partly down to the culture we’re from and the language we speak. Some new evidence for that comes from a recent study published in the journal Cognition.

In the study, researchers from Qatar, France, Belgium and Spain studied three groups of people: left-to-right-reading speakers of Western languages, right-to-left-reading speakers of Arabic, and illiterate speakers of Arabic.

People from all three groups were asked to memorize rows of color patches. After memorizing a row of color patches, they were shown a new sample of color patches and asked if the new sample was part of the original row. From the responses, the researchers were able to infer whether participants tended to memorize the color sequences in a left-to-right or right-to-left fashion.

As it turned out, speakers of Western languages written left to right had a tendency to also memorize the color patterns from left to right. Similarly, speakers of Arabic, which is written right to left, memorized the color patterns from right to left.

So what about the illiterate Arabic speakers? They didn’t tend to memorize the sequences either in a systematic left-to-right or right-to-left order.

Together, these results show that whether we learn to read left to right or right to left can also determine whether we memorize certain kinds of nonverbal information in a left-to-right or right-to-left order as well. More generally, it appears that how we remember things is to some degree a product of the culture we’re immersed in.

The researchers summarized these findings by suggesting that “culture ‘literarily’ directs our thoughts.” In other words, one way our culture affects how we think about the world around us is through language, especially written language. When we learn to read in the language used by our culture, we are also learning how to organize other kinds of information we encounter without necessarily realizing it.

Image: Flickr/Andrew Moore