Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

With the Past Behind and the Future Ahead: Back-to-Front Representation of Past and Future Sentences

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

With the Past Behind and the Future Ahead: Back-to-Front Representation of Past and Future Sentences

Article excerpt

Published online: 10 December 2011

# Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2011

Abstract Several studies support the psychological reality of a mental timeline that runs from the left to the right and may strongly affect our thinking about time. Ulrich and Maienborn (Cognition 117:126-138, 2010) examined the linguistic relevance of this timeline during the processing of past- and future-related sentences. Their results indicate that the timeline is not activated automatically during sentence comprehension. While no explicit reference of temporal expressions to the left-right axis has been attested (e.g., *the meeting was moved to the left), natural languages refer to the back-front axis in order to encode temporal information (e.g., the meeting was moved forward). Therefore, the present study examines whether a back-frontal timeline becomes automatically activated during the processing of past- and future-related sentences. The results demonstrate a clear effect on reaction time that emerges from a time-space association along the frontal timeline (Experiment 1). However, this activation seems to be nonautomatic (Experiment 2), rendering it unlikely that this frontal timeline is involved in comprehension of the temporal content of sentences.

Keywords Language comprehension . Mental timeline . Back-frontal timeline . Metaphoric mapping . Space-time congruency effect

When we talk about time and temporal notions, we often use words that serve primarily to express spatial relationships; to look forward to welcoming you, to look back to the good old times, or to be years ahead are just a few illustrative examples. This kind of metaphoric time reference presumably indicates that we engage spatial representations in our minds when thinking about time. It has been argued that this mental reference to spatial representations is necessary because, in contrast to space, some aspects of time cannot be experienced but only imagined (Evans, 2006; Ornstein, 1969; Woodrow, 1951). For example, we can directly observe moving the car forward, yet we can only imagine moving forward the meeting (see Casasanto, Fotakopoulou, & Boroditsky, 2010). It has therefore been suggested that we draw on the mentally more accessible domain of space to enable our thinking about time (e.g., Boroditsky, 2000).

This idea that thinking about time is rooted in spatial representations has long been a subject of inquiry in philosophy, linguistics, and psychology (e.g., Boroditsky, 2000; Casasanto et al., 2010; Clark, 1973; Evans, 2006; Fraser, 1966; Haspelmath, 1997; Klein, 2009; Tversky, Kugelmass, & Winter, 1991). According to this view-also called the spatial metaphor of time (e.g., Clark, 1973, p. 50)-we heuristically use space to structure and conceptualize time. Spatial representations in our minds are most likely richer than temporal ones, because the former ones are built up through relatively concrete perceptuomotor experiences that we have when interacting with the environment (Talmy, 1988; see Kranjec & Chatterjee, 2010, for a critical review in the domain of cognitive neuroscience). In fact, several sources of converging evidence suggest that our representations of time depend on our representations of space. First, in natural languages across the world, the vocabulary of time has spatial roots (Haspelmath, 1997; Lakoff & Johnson, 1980; Núñez & Sweetser, 2006). For example, Haspelmath's crosslinguistic survey of data from 53 different languages shows that the overwhelming majority of temporal expressions originate from spatial expressions. Second, young children acquire spatial expressions such as there and here earlier than the related temporal counterparts then and now (e.g., Clark, 1973; Graf, 2006; Weißenborn, 1988). This observation is consistent with the assumption that the domain of space has to be structured in children's minds before they can process and express temporal relationships as effectively as spatial ones. …

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