How the physicality of space affects how we think about time

Mem Cognit. 2018 Apr;46(3):438-449. doi: 10.3758/s13421-017-0776-2.


Time is an abstract concept that may be better understood when mapped onto space. For English speakers, typically a timeline is used that runs horizontally from left (past) to right (future) (Boroditsky, Fuhrman, & McCormick, 2011) and can be separated into regions, past and future. However, it is unclear from prior research how these regions along the timeline are differentiated. In addition, although for English speakers time is typically thought of in terms of a left-right axis, gestures and metaphors that conceptualize the past as behind and the future as ahead are prevalent, implicating the use of a front-back axis. In three experiments, participants made temporal judgments of pictures while holding their hands in various positions around their bodies, to assess whether the body or hands or both are used as anchors to differentiate regions and whether the front-back axis can be used as a timeline. In Experiment 1 we found independent influences of the body and the hands in anchoring the left-right axis. In Experiment 2 we found support for the use of the front-back axis to map time, with independent influences of the body and the hands in anchoring this axis as well. In Experiment 3 we demonstrated that the timeline must be configured in a way that is consistent with underlying conceptualizations of time, by showing that the above-below axis is not used for English speakers. Together, these results indicate that time is mapped onto space, with this mapping being constrained by underlying conceptualizations of time.

Keywords: Front–back; Left–right; Space; Time.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Gestures*
  • Humans
  • Space Perception / physiology*
  • Time Perception / physiology*
  • Young Adult