Mental Time

Rose K. Hendricks and Lera Boroditsky, ‘Constructing Mental Time Without Visual Experience’, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 19 (2015), 429-30.

This article revisits a theme I’ve dealt with before, in one of the very first posts on this blog, here, and then in a chapter I referred to in another post, here. It made me think about some of the nature writing I’ve come across recently, and I’ll say something about that in a later post, but for now I’ll just outline some of the interesting things they discuss.
      It is well established that human being conceive time in spatial form, placing earlier and later things (for example) on an imaginary physical line. The shape and orientation of such lines depend a lot on cultural experience (such as, for example, the direction of writing). Hendricks and Boroditsky explore nuances arising from recent experiments, especially by R. Bottini et al. (see ‘Space and Time in the Sighted and Blind’, Cognition, 141 (2015), 67-72).

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The point of testing blind and sighted participants was to compare their mental time-lines, and it emerged that reading using vision, and reading using touch, both resulted in left-to-right, earlier-to-later correspondences. Another point was to find out whether this timeline was ‘anchored on the body itself or on the space outside the body’; by getting participants to undertake a keyboard task with either crossed or uncrossed arms, the idea was, it would be possible to determine this. There was no significant difference in the results, so the conclusion was that the timeline is not tied to bodily disposition, but to the space outside instead. Time in this case does not run across from hand to hand, through arms and body, but through the air in front.
      In Italian subjects anyway; as usual some of the most arresting parts of a paper on this topic arose when the different spatial representations of time in other cultures were discussed. Researchers have found different axes, different orientations within the same axes, multiple spatial models in the same culture, multiple spatial models in the same person depending on circumstances: ‘people dynamically create different representations for different tasks’.
      This conjunction of space and time is alive in gesture and in language, and as I said in that earlier post, literary metaphors can evoke, and have evoked, familiar and unfamiliar configurations. No time now to say any more, though: I am off to give a lecture about the tradition of Tragedy in literature, in which I want to talk about how later works can influence earlier works, as well as the more predictable reverse. I have a feeling that I’ll be gesturing away even more self-consciously than usual, having been thinking about this topic.

E-mail me at rtrl100[at]cam.ac.uk

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