Children use space to think about time

Space and time are intertwined in our thoughts, as they are in the physical world. For centuries, philosophers have debated exactly how these dimensions are related in the human mind. According to a paper to appear in the April 2010 issue of Cognitive Science, children's ability to understand time is inseparable from their understanding of space.

To probe the relationship between and in the developing mind, Daniel Casasanto of the Max Planck Institute for in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, and colleagues at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki and Stanford University showed movies of two snails racing along parallel paths for different distances or durations. The children judged either the spatial or temporal aspect of each race, reporting which animal went for a longer distance or a longer time.

When asked to judge distance, children had no trouble ignoring time. But when asked to judge time, they had difficulty ignoring the spatial dimension of the event. Snails that moved a longer distance were mistakenly judged to have traveled for a longer time. Children use physical distance to measure of the passage of time.

Time in language and mind

When English speakers talk about time, they can hardly avoid using spatial words. They hope for short meetings and long vacations. Was children's confusion the result of using words that have both spatial and temporal meanings? Importantly, this study was conducted in Greek-speaking children. Greek tends to use a different kind of spatial vocabulary for time, describing time as accumulating in 3-dimensional space, rather than extending in linear space. In Greek, it was possible to phrase questions naturally while avoiding any ambiguous words like 'long' or 'short'. Children's responses were not caused by superficial confusions in wording, rather they reflect deeper conceptual links between space and time.

Relativity of psychological time

If time is judged relative to space, do our minds intuitively grasp the same relationship between these dimensions found modern physics? "Einstein posed a similar question to the child psychologist, Piaget", says Casasanto. "But it's unlikely that our intuitions about time are shaped by something as counterintuitive as Einstein's Relativity." Rather, this research shows a different relationship. In the physical world, space and time are theorized to be mutually inseparable. In the mind, however, they are asymmetrically separable. Children can think about space independent of time, but it appears they cannot conceptualize time independent of space. Provided by Max-Planck-Gesellschaft

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Mar 31, 2010
To me, it is no surprise that talk of time requires spatial words. The reason is because what we think of as time is actually a comparison of one spatial movement (for example, the movement of the minute hand on an analog clock) with the movement we are "timing", such as a footrace on a track. Two spatial measurements of movement compared to each other, and no actual "time" involved! Real time enables spatial movement, but is not measured by spatial movement.

Time cannot be conceptualized without space because we do not experience any movement along the temporal dimensions. All of our movement is measured along the spatial dimensions. The talk of "past" and "future" consists of memory labels describing spatial activity (movement), not actual movement along one or more temporal dimensions. All we actually experience of time is Now, which is static in the temporal dimensions.


Mar 31, 2010
Explain to me how to express time without using any spacial reference.

Actually... explain how to describe anything accurately without a spacial reference...

Mar 31, 2010
It has to do with space-time vs time-space

Mar 31, 2010
Okay, as a crude example how about the charge on a capacitor as it is charging up, or the temperature of the water in a kettle as it boils, or anything like that, where something changes over time but doesn't necessarily move anywhere? Time could be determined from observations of these things without a spatial reference, couldn't it?

Apr 01, 2010
Explain to me how to express time without using any spacial reference.
The flower faltered after two hours.
He lived for 50 summers.

As frajo eloquently explained, time doesn't require a location, it simply requires information. That information can be a location, subject, object, and the accompanying action or experience.

Time isn't real, it is the rate of information growth or change within a system.

Apr 01, 2010
Time isn't real, it is the rate of information growth or change within a system.

I understand and agree with your meaning, but isn't saying "time" easier than saying "the rate of information growth or change within a system"? :)

Besides which, it would be more accurate to say "Time isn't physical, and therefore cannot be defined in terms of physical laws". We recognize that there is change, and human beings understand on a primal level the phenomenon of "Now"; unfortunately, however, the notion and dimension of "time" is hardly understood yet widely assumed and accepted by cultures since the dawn of history...

Apr 01, 2010
I would sort of like to know the ages of the children, I mean some age ranges of them cannot conceptualize time existing before they did either.

About the comments about time- are we talking about the human ability to perceive time not being fixed or time is not real at all. I mean there have been events that could not happen without general relativity concerning time, with very real effects. How something imaginary could be effected and have those effects measured in the real world does not make sense. But if you want to say human perception is not fixed and constantly fluctuating based on environmental stimuli and biological makeup- fine.

Apr 02, 2010
I understand and agree with your meaning, but isn't saying "time" easier than saying "the rate of information growth or change within a system"? :)

They're not the same thing now are they?

Time doesn't move more quickly because physical information is being created more quickly. Time is an artificial construct that provides frame of reference by which to judge the rate of change in the generation of information. It is an observational artifact of some other greater process. What the process is within the realm of physics, I can only guess, however, looking at time in this manner allows us to examine why time only flows in one direction (as far as we're aware) and construct ideas to work within while determining the greater truth of what time is a result of and how it works.
I mean there have been events that could not happen without general relativity concerning time, with very real effects.
You don't exactly read time to determine history. You read information.

Apr 04, 2010
Clocks don't measure this strange thing called 'time'; clocks measure clocks. Without memory, there is no time and yet we can only access these memories (of the so-called 'past') right now, in the present. Because of these considerations, I tend to think that temporality and awareness are fundamentally linked.

Apr 07, 2010
@ Skeptic

That I can certainly agree with - we hardly know a thing about time, in the same manner we hardly know a substantial thing about "black holes" yet there is a widely accepted term and basically easy-to-understand concept associated with that term. My earlier post was just a light-hearted attempt to highlight how we have a very simple term to describe a very complex, very difficult to understand concept that unlike black holes is so relevant to our day to day lives that we must have such a deceptively simple understanding in order to function. In other words, poking fun at the nature of our terminology and your (very accurate and concise) explanation of what we call time. :)

We do not have a better single-word term for it, unfortunately, and even if we did, would it catch on in today's world? We've been calling it "time" as far back as the oldest historical records available.

Apr 07, 2010
Simon, completely agreed. Unfortunately our lack of prior understanding will always taint our pursuit for future understanding.

May 03, 2010
I presume, little child preffer to navigate by using of sounds from their prenatal life - so they're handling time like blind bats, who are using time intervals for navigation, instead of space intervals.

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