Study provides first evidence of common brain code for space, time, distance

A new Dartmouth study provides the first evidence that people use the same brain circuitry to figure out space, time and social distances.

The findings, which help reveal how our brains organize information and create our perspective of the world, appear in the Journal of Neuroscience.

The researchers looked at whether there is an overlap, or a common mechanism, in the used to represent time, space and social distances. They used fMRI to analyze the of participants while they viewed objects photographed at different distances, viewed photos of friends or acquaintances and read phrases referring to the immediate or more remote future.

"The results showed that the same brain patterns that decide whether something is physically near to us versus far away also decide whether we are thinking about the near or distant future or seeing a friend versus an acquaintance," said senior author Thalia Wheatley, an associate professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences. "In other words, there is a common neural code for space, time and social distance. Near, now and dear (friends) activate one pattern and far, later and activate a different pattern.

"There are interesting implications for this," she said. "For one, it suggests why we use distance metaphors to talk about time and friendship – for example, close friends and . These metaphors stick because they echo the very neural computations involved. Our brains use distance to understand time and social connectedness. This mapping function may have a particularly important benefit in determining whether we care enough to act: Is something happening here, now, to someone I love? Or over there, years from now, to a stranger?"

Related Stories

Neuroscientists unlock shared brain codes

Oct 20, 2011

A team of neuroscientists at Dartmouth College has shown that different individuals' brains use the same, common neural code to recognize complex visual images.

Recommended for you

Damage to brain networks affects stroke recovery

Nov 21, 2014

(Medical Xpress)—Initial results of an innovative study may significantly change how some patients are evaluated after a stroke, according to researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. ...

Dopamine leaves its mark in brain scans

Nov 21, 2014

Researchers use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to identify which areas of the brain are active during specific tasks. The method reveals areas of the brain, in which energy use and hence oxygen ...

User comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

RobertKarlStonjek
not rated yet Feb 05, 2014
The obvious assumption in this study is to consider that space and distance come first or that they are primary and everything else is attached to them. It is far more likely that 'magnitude' (unassigned) is the locus and that all observations, states or feelings that can have a magnitude assigned to them share the same brain mechanism. This sharing makes binding possible ie that we can consider two entirely different senses together by comparing magnitudes (essentially, an abstract value) in response to various cues that can impact on more than one sense.

There is most probably a shared brain mechanism/response to bright lights, loud noises, novelty and strangers. We can start with any one of these and claim that, for instance, 'loudness' has a general form. I chose these particular properties because babies respond to each of them in the same way, indicating a common neural locus.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.