Facts So Romantic

How Where You Are or What You’re Doing Alters Your Sense of Time

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How we think of time can lead to some odd results. For example, imagine your co-worker says next Wednesday’s meeting has been moved forward two days. When is the meeting going to be held? Your response can be predicted by how you see your relationship to time. If you see time flowing toward you, you’re more likely to say Monday. But if you see yourself wading through time, then you’re more likely to say Friday.

That’s not all: How you relate to time depends on what you’re doing at the moment. If you’re standing at the end of a line, or are in the middle of a train ride, you are more likely to use the time-moving metaphor, and say Monday; as you get toward the front of the line, or are getting on or off the train, you’re more likely to say Friday. If you’re waiting for something, time flows toward you; if you’re not, time’s something you move in.

Another way our thoughts on time can be affected by space is when we travel in unfamiliar territory. Ever wonder why, when you go somewhere, the trip back seems to cover less distance and take less time? This happens because we don’t concretely know the length of the distances we travel—we estimate distances from other cues, like how many new memories we form, writes Claudia Hammond in Time Warped: Unlocking the Mysteries of Time Perception. When we go somewhere new, the trip there seems longer than the way back because we are seeing a bunch of new things. On the way back, though, we are merely recognizing landmarks, not encoding new memories, so our minds estimate that the time—and space—is shorter. This happens on road trips as well as in smaller spaces, like airports and amusement parks.

Yet another, more common example of space infecting time is how we anchor it to our bodies. In Western culture, we tend to think the past is behind us and the future is in front. It’s reflected in how we talk (“looking back on my life…”; “I have some deadlines ahead of me”). Our gestures reveal this, too, like when we put our hand in front of us to talk about an upcoming date. Some other cultures do, however, think of the past as in front of them. Speakers of the Aymara language in the Andes, for example, gesture in front when talking about the past. But what is striking is that everybody—no matter what culture they are from—thinks of the future as somewhere. People talk and gesticulate about time as though it were located in space.

How things are spaced can also alter our sense of time. If you show people a string of lights that turn on one by one, they will estimate that the time between each flash is longer if the space between the lights is longer. This is known as the “kappa effect.”

Our spatial metaphors for time also make a difference in our experience. In 2010, Daniel Casasanto, a psychologist at the University of Chicago, ran an experiment that showed how English and Spanish speakers’ duration judgments could be manipulated by imagery on a computer screen. He exploited the fact that English speakers say “a long time,” while Spanish speakers say “a lot of time.” English speakers tend to think of time as a spatial length, while Spanish speakers think of time as a spatial volume. Casasanto reasoned that these language differences weren’t superficial. By showing his subjects either a line spreading across the screen, or a container filling up, he could impact their duration judgments differently. What he found was that watching a lengthening line affected English speakers’ answers more than watching a container filling up—English speakers thought a line that was longer took a longer time to form. The container filling up similarly affected Spanish speakers.

Einstein showed that space and time aren’t fundamentally distinct aspects of nature. Maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that the two are so intertwined in our minds.


Jim Davies is the author or Riveted: The Science of Why Jokes Make Us Laugh, Movies Make Us Cry, and Religion Makes Us Feel One with the Universe. He teaches cognitive science at Carleton University.


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How Where You Are or What You’re Doing Alters Your Sense of Time

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