Space and Time

Distortions in spatial perception are widely known. Quick, which is further west: Reno, NV or San Diego, CA. Now check a map. Objects that are within reach are judged as closer than objects just out of reach. And this distortion changes when you are holding a reach extender. Our perception of space is subjective. What about our perception of time? A recent essay by neuroscientist David Eagleman discusses some of the ways time perception can become distorted. For instance, “…if a police car launching off a ramp is filmed in slow motion…the police car may seem suspended longer, while the frequencies of its siren and its flashing lights remain unchanged.” This, among other examples, suggests that the perception of time can be distorted; the durations of different characteristics of the same event can be perceived differently. Additionally, the more events crammed into a time period, the longer that time period is remembered to be. Waiting in line can make time seem to stand still. The outgoing route can seem to take longer than the return route.

Understanding time perception has implications for spatial researchers. Spatial researchers, some in my own lab, have recently been studying the spatialization of time. Spatial analogy makes time easier to represent: time lines and analog clocks are two of the most common ways time is spatialized for daily purposes. But the spatial nature of time perception pervades even our gestures. Try talking about the past without gesturing to the left. If you speak Hebrew or Arabic (which reads from right to left), chances are, the past is to the right. Whether this spatial representation of time itself is subject to distortion has yet to be fully researched, but could be a crucial link between the representation of space and time.

Our understanding of the physical world is laden with psychological meaning, and time perception is no exception. Lera Boroditsky, a cognitive scientist at Stanford, has theorized that features of the physical world have been co-opted to represent the abstract concept of time. This account holds for physically representing other abstract concepts like happiness (with up) and love (with warmth), and these representations are effected both ways. Feeling physical warmth can actually generate attraction and compassion. So the next time the day seems to be crawling by, remember that it’s all in your head.

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