When time is space: evidence for a mental time line

Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2012 Nov;36(10):2257-73. doi: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2012.08.007. Epub 2012 Aug 23.


Time and space are tightly linked in the physical word. Recently, several lines of evidence have suggested that the mental representation of time might be spatial in nature. For instance, time-space interactions have been described as a strong preference to associate the past with the left space and the future with the right space. Here we review the growing evidence of interactions between time and space processing, systematized according to the type of interaction being investigated. We present the empirical findings supporting the possibility that humans represent the subjective time flow on a spatially oriented "mental time line" that is accessed through spatial attention mechanisms. The heterogeneous time-space interactions are then compared with the number-space interactions described in the numerical cognition literature. An alternative hypothesis, which maintains a common system for magnitude processing, including time, space, and number, is also discussed. Finally, we extend the discussion to the more general issue of how the representation of these concepts might be grounded into the cortical circuits that support spatial attention and sensorimotor transformations.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Attention / physiology*
  • Biological Evolution
  • Cognition / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Psychomotor Performance
  • Space Perception / physiology*
  • Time*