Time flies like an arrow: Space-time compatibility effects suggest the use of a mental timeline

Abstract

The concept of time is elusive to direct observation, yet it pervades almost every aspect of our daily lives. How is time represented, given that it cannot be perceived directly? Metaphoric mapping theory assumes that abstract concepts such as time are represented in terms of concrete, readily available dimensions. Consistent with this, many languages employ spatial metaphors to describe temporal relations. Here we investigate whether the timeis-space metaphor also affects visuospatial attention. In a first experiment, subjects categorized the names of actors in a manner compatible or incompatible with the orientation of a timeline. In two further experiments, subjects categorized or detected left- or right-side targets following prospective or retrospective time words. All three experiments show compatibility effects between the dimensions of space (left-right) and time (earlier-later) and indicate that the concept of time does indeed evoke spatial associations that facilitate responses to targets at spatially compatible locations.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

References

  1. Barsalou, L. W. (1999). Perceptual symbol systems. Behavioral & Brain Sciences, 22, 577–660.

    Google Scholar 

  2. Boroditsky, L. (2000). Metaphoric structuring: Understanding time through spatial metaphors. Cognition, 75, 1–28.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Dehaene, S., Bossini, S., & Giraux, P. (1993). The mental representation of parity and number magnitude. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 122, 371–396.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Emmorey, K. (2001). Space on hand: The exploitation of signing space to illustrate abstract thought. In M. Gattis (Ed.), Spatial schemas and abstract thought (pp. 147–174). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

    Google Scholar 

  5. Fischer, M. H., Castel, A. D., Dodd, M. D., & Pratt, J. (2003). Perceiving numbers causes spatial shifts of attention. Nature Neuroscience, 6, 555–556.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Frischen, A., & Tipper, S. P. (2004). Orienting attention via observed gaze shift evokes longer term inhibitory effects: Implications for social interactions, attention, and memory. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 133, 516–533.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Gevers, W., Reynvoet, B., & Fias, W. (2003). The mental representation of ordinal sequences is spatially organized. Cognition, 87, B87-B95.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Gevers, W., Reynvoet, B., & Fias, W. (2004). The mental representation of ordinal sequences is spatially organized: Evidence from days of the week. Cortex, 40, 171–172.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Glenberg, A. M., & Kaschak, M. P. (2002). Grounding language in action. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 9, 558–565.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Haspelmath, M. (1997). Lincom studies in theoretical linguistics: Vol. 3. From space to time: Temporal adverbials in the world’s languages. Munich: Lincom Europa.

    Google Scholar 

  11. Kornblum, S., Hasbroucq, T., & Osman, A. (1990). Dimensional overlap: Cognitive basis for stimulus-response compatibility—A model and taxonomy. Psychological Review, 97, 253–270.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (1999). Philosophy in the flesh: The embodied mind and its challenge to Western thought. New York: Basic Books.

    Google Scholar 

  13. Proctor, R. W., & Cho, Y. S. (2006). Polarity correspondence: A general principle for performance of speeded binary classification tasks. Psychological Bulletin, 132, 416–442.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Richardson, D. C., Spivey, M. J., Barsalou, L. W., & McRae, K. (2003). Spatial representations activated during real-time comprehension of verbs. Cognitive Science, 27, 767–780.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Santiago, J., Lupiáñez, J., Pérez, E., & Funes, M. J. (2007). Time (also) flies from left to right. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 14, 512–516.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Smith, L., & Klein, R. (1990). Evidence for semantic satiation: Repeating a category slows subsequent semantic processing. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, & Cognition, 16, 852–861.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Torralbo, A., Santiago, J., & Lupiáñez, J. (2006). Flexible conceptual projection of time onto spatial frames of reference. Cognitive Science, 30, 745–757.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Tversky, B., Kugelmass, S., & Winter, A. (1991). Cross-cultural and developmental trends in graphic productions. Cognitive Psychology, 23, 515–557.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Weger, U. W., Meier, B. P., Robinson, M. D., & Inhoff, A. W. (2007). Things are sounding up: Affective influences on auditory tone perception. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 14, 517–521.

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Ulrich W. Weger.

Additional information

This work was supported by Grant WE4088/1-1 from the German Research Foundation to U.W.W. and by a grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Council of Canada to J.P.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Weger, U.W., Pratt, J. Time flies like an arrow: Space-time compatibility effects suggest the use of a mental timeline. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review 15, 426–430 (2008). https://doi.org/10.3758/PBR.15.2.426

Download citation

Keywords

  • Stimulus Onset Asynchrony
  • Compatibility Effect
  • Visuospatial Attention
  • Target Side
  • Stimulus Onset Asynchrony Condition