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21-07-2021 | Review Open Access

The categorical use of a continuous time representation

Tijdschrift:
Psychological Research
Auteurs:
Alessia Beracci, Julio Santiago, Marco Fabbri
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Abstract

The abstract concept of time is mentally represented as a spatially oriented line, with the past associated with the left space and the future associated with the right. Although the line is supposed to be continuous, most available evidence is also consistent with a categorical representation that only discriminates between past and future. The aim of the present study was to test the continuous or categorical nature of the mental timeline. Italian participants judged the temporal reference of 20 temporal expressions by pressing keys on either the left or the right. In Experiment 1 (N = 32), all words were presented at the center of the screen. In Experiment 2 (N = 32), each word was presented on the screen in a central, left, or right position. In Experiment 3 (N = 32), all text was mirror-reversed. In all experiments, participants were asked to place the 20 temporal expressions on a 10-cm line. The results showed a clear Spatial–TEmporal Association of Response Codes (STEARC) effect which did not vary in strength depending on the location of the temporal expressions on the line. However, there was also a clear Distance effect: latencies were slower for words that were closer to the present than further away. We conclude that the mental timeline is a continuous representation that can be used in a categorical way when an explicit past vs. future discrimination is required by the task.

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