Time does not flow without language: Spatial distance affects temporal duration regardless of movement or direction

Zhenguang G. Cai, Louise Connell (Lead Author), Judith Holler

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16 Citations (Scopus)


Much evidence has suggested that people conceive of time as flowing directionally in transverse space (e.g., from left to right for English speakers). However, this phenomenon has never been tested in a fully nonlinguistic paradigm where neither stimuli nor task use linguistic labels, which raises the possibility that time is directional only when reading/writing direction has been evoked. In the present study, English-speaking participants viewed a video where an actor sang a note while gesturing and reproduced the duration of the sung note by pressing a button. Results showed that the perceived duration of the note was increased by a long-distance gesture, relative to a short-distance gesture. This effect was equally strong for gestures moving from left to right and from right to left and was not dependent on gestures depicting movement through space; a weaker version of the effect emerged with static gestures depicting spatial distance. Since both our gesture stimuli and temporal reproduction task were nonlinguistic, we conclude that the spatial representation of time is nondirectional: Movement contributes, but is not necessary, to the representation of temporal information in a transverse timeline.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)973–980
JournalPsychonomic Bulletin & Review
Issue number5
Early online date26 Feb 2013
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2013


  • Time perception
  • Space
  • Metaphor
  • Embodied cognition
  • Gesture

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