VOL. 13, NO. 2, MARCH 2002 Copyright 2002 American Psychological Society 185
THE ROLES OF BODY AND MIND IN ABSTRACT THOUGHT
and Michael Ramscar2
Massachusetts Institute of Technology and 2
University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, Scotland
AbstractHow are people able to think about things they have never
seen or touched? We demonstrate that abstract knowledge can be built
analogically from more experience-based knowledge. Peoples understanding of the abstract domain of time, for example, is so intimately
dependent on the more experience-based domain of space that when
people make an air journey or wait in a lunch line, they also unwittingly (and dramatically) change their thinking about time. Further,
our results suggest that it is not sensorimotor spatial experience per se
that influences peoples thinking about time, but rather peoples representations of and thinking about their spatial experience.
How are people able to think about things they have never seen or
touched? Much scientific progresswhether it involves theorizing
about invisible forces, studying the behaviors of atoms, or trying to
characterize the nature of private mental experiencedepends on generating new ways of describing and conceptualizing phenomena that
are not perceivable through the senses. In everyday life, too, people
face the same problems with abstract notions like time, justice, and
love. How do people come to represent and reason about abstract domains despite the dearth of sensory information available about them?
One suggestion is that abstract domains are understood through
analogical extensions from richer, more experience-based domains
(Boroditsky, 2000, 2001; Clark, 1973; Gentner, Bowdle, Wolff, &
Boronat, 2001; Gentner, Imai, & Boroditsky, in press; Gibbs, 1994;
Holyoak & Thagard, 1995; Lakoff & Johnson, 1980, 1999). This
experience-based structuring view can be formulated in several
strengths. A very strong, embodied formulation might be that knowledge of abstract domains is tied directly to the body such that abstract
notions are understood directly through image schemas and motor
schemas (Lakoff & Johnson, 1999). A milder view might be that abstract knowledge is based on representations of more experiencebased domains that are functionally separable from the representations
directly involved in sensorimotor experience.
The studies we report in this article show that peoples understanding of the abstract domain of time is built on their knowledge and experiences in the more concrete domain of space. In fact, peoples
representations of time are so intimately dependent on space that
when they engage in particular types of everyday spatial activities
(e.g., embarking on a train journey or standing in a lunch line), they
unwittingly also change how they think about time. Further (and contrary to the very strong embodied view), it appears that abstract thinking is built on representations of more experience-based domains, and
not necessarily on the physical experience itself.
Suppose you are told that next Wednesdays meeting has been
moved forward 2 days. What day is the meeting, now that it has been
rescheduled? The answer to this question depends on how you choose
to think about time. If, on the one hand, you think of yourself as moving forward through time (the ego-moving perspective), then moving a
meeting forward is moving it further in your direction of motion
that is, from Wednesday to Friday. If, on the other hand, you think of
time as coming toward you (the time-moving perspective), then moving a meeting forward is moving it closer to youthat is, from
Wednesday to Monday (Boroditsky, 2000; McGlone & Harding, 1998;
McTaggart, 1908). Most people have very strong intuitions about
which answer to this question is correct. As we discuss here, however,
the question is indeed ambiguous, and individuals intuitions about the
answers can change dramatically depending on context (though their
certainty of their answers generally remains untouched). In a neutral
context, people are as likely to think of themselves as moving through
time as they are to think of time as coming toward them, and so are as
likely to say that the meeting has been moved to Friday (the ego-moving answer) as they are to say that it has been moved to Monday (the
time-moving answer) (Boroditsky, 2000; McGlone & Harding, 1998).
But where do these representations of time come from? Is thinking
about moving through time based on more concrete experiences of
moving through space? If soif representations of time are indeed tied
to representations of spacethen getting people to think about space in
a particular way should also influence how they think about time.
To investigate the relationship between spatial thinking and peoples thinking about time, we asked 239 Stanford undergraduates to
fill out a one-page questionnaire that contained a spatial prime followed by the ambiguous question, Next Wednesdays meeting has
been moved forward two days. What day is the meeting now that it has
been rescheduled? The spatial primes (shown in Fig. 1) were designed
to get people to think about themselves moving through space in an office chair (see Fig. 1a) or making an office chair come toward them
through space (see Fig. 1b). In both cases, participants were asked to
imagine how they would maneuver the chair to the X, and to draw an
arrow indicating the path of motion. The left-right orientation of the diagrams was counterbalanced across subjects. Immediately after subjects
completed the spatial prime, they were asked the ambiguous Next
Wednesdays meeting . . . question. We were interested in whether subjects would think differently about time right after imagining themselves
as moving through space versus imagining things coming toward them.
As predicted, people used primed spatial information to think
about time. Subjects primed to think of objects coming toward them
through space were more likely to think of time as coming toward
them (67% said Wednesdays meeting had moved to Monday) than
they were to think of themselves as moving through time (only 33%
said the meeting had moved to Friday). Subjects primed to think of
themselves as moving through space showed the opposite pattern
(only 43% said Monday, and 57% said Friday), 2
(1, N 239)
13.3, p .001. It appears that peoples thinking about time is indeed
tied to their spatial thinking. These results raise a further question: Do
people unwittingly change their thinking about time during everyday
spatial experiences and activities (not just when processing specially
designed spatial primes in a laboratory setting)?
Address correspondence to Lera Boroditsky, Department of Brain & Cognitive Science, NE20-456 MIT, 77 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA 02139;
e-mail: [email protected].
Roles of Body and Mind in Abstract Thought
186 VOL. 13, NO. 2, MARCH 2002
STUDY 2: THE LUNCH LINE
To investigate the relationship between spatial experience and peoples thinking about time, we asked 70 people waiting in a lunch line
the ambiguous question about Wednesdays meeting. The lunch line
was for a caf in the basement of Stanfords psychology department.
The line is usually about 50 m long, but moves quickly, with a waiting
time of about 10 min. After participants answered our ambiguous
question, we asked them how long they felt they had waited in line,
and also recorded which quartile of the line they were in when interviewed. This second index served as an objective measure of how
much forward motion in line they had experienced (with people furthest along in line having experienced the most motion). We were interested in whether the spatial experience of moving forward in a line
made people more likely to think of themselves as moving forward in
time also (as opposed to thinking of time as coming toward them).
As predicted, the further along in line people were (the more forward spatial motion they had experienced), the more likely they were
to think of themselves as moving through time (to say the meeting had
been moved to Friday), r .33, p .005 (see Fig. 2). Peoples estimates of their waiting time were also predictive of their answers to the
question about next Wednesdays meeting, r .26, p .05. However,
their estimates of their waiting time were less predictive of their answers than was their spatial position in line. When the effect of spatial
position was controlled for, peoples estimates of their waiting time
were no longer predictive of their answers to the ambiguous question
about time, r .05, p .67. However, when the effect of peoples
perceived waiting time was controlled for, spatial position was still
predictive of peoples answers, r .20, p .05. It appears that spatial
position in line (and hence the amount of forward spatial motion that a
person had just experienced) was the best predictor of peoples thinking about time.
In the next study, we examined whether spatial motion per se is
necessary, or whether simply thinking about or anticipating a journey
is enough to influence how people think about time.
STUDY 3: THE AIRPORT
To investigate whether spatial thinking is enough to influence peoples thinking about time (even in the absence of spatial motion), we
asked 333 visitors to San Francisco International Airport the ambiguous question about Wednesdays meeting. After the participants answered, we asked them whether they were waiting for someone to
arrive, waiting to depart, or had just flown in.1
We were interested in
two things: (a) whether a lengthy experience of moving through space
makes people more likely to take the ego-moving than the time-moving perspective on time, and (b) whether the actual experience of motion is necessary to change ones thinking about time, or if just
thinking about motion is enough.
As shown in Figure 3, people who had just flown in were more
likely to take the ego-moving perspective on time (to think of themselves as moving through time and to say the meeting was moved to
Friday; 76%) than were people who had not yet flown and were waiting to depart (62%), 2
(1, N 220) 11.8, p .01. Further, even
people who were waiting to depart were already more likely to think
of themselves as moving through time (62%) than were those waiting
to pick someone up (51%), 2
(1, N 217) 4.3, p .05.2
This set of
findings suggests that just thinking about spatial motion is sufficient to
change ones thinking about time (because people who were only
about to departwho had not yet flownwere already more likely to
take the ego-moving perspective than those just waiting to pick someone up). But these findings also raise an interesting question: Why
were people who had just flown in more likely to take an ego-moving
perspective than people who were only about to depart? Was it because they had spent more time actually moving through space, or was
it just because they had had more time to think about it?
STUDY 4: THE TRAIN
To investigate this issue further, we posed the ambiguous question
about Wednesdays meeting to 120 passengers on CalTrain (a train
line connecting San Francisco and San Jose). All of the passengers
were seated at the time that they were approached by the experimenter. After they answered our question, we asked them how long
they had been on the train, and how much further they had to go. Participants wrote down their answers (in minutes) on a questionnaire
1. Although people who fly on airplanes and people waiting to pick someone up may be two different populations, people who have just flown are likely
to be the same population as those about to depart on an airplane because anyone embarking on an airplane journey must both depart and arrive at least once
2. The group of people waiting to pick someone up is an interesting case.
On the one hand, they were waiting for something (or someone) to come to
them, and so one might predict a time-moving bias (a bias to say the meeting
was moved to Monday). On the other hand, these people had just traveled to
the airport and were planning a trip back home, so one might expect an egomoving bias (a bias to say the meeting was moved to Friday). It is possible that
these two opposite biasing factors canceled each other out, producing the
nearly even Monday-Friday split we observed.
Fig. 1. The ego-moving (a) and time-moving (b) priming materials
used in Study 1. The instructions began, Imagine you are the person
in the picture. Notice there is a chair on wheels, and a track. For participants in the ego-moving condition, the instructions continued,
You are sitting in the chair. While sitting in the chair, imagine how
you would maneuver the chair to the X. Draw an arrow indicating the
path of motion. For participants in the time-moving condition, the instructions continued, You are holding a rope attached to the chair.
With the rope, imagine how you would maneuver the chair to the X.
Draw an arrow indicating the path of motion.
Lera Boroditsky and Michael Ramscar
VOL. 13, NO. 2, MARCH 2002 187
Fig. 2. Results of Study 2, in which 70 people waiting in a lunch line answered the ambiguous
time question. The percentage of responses reflecting the ego-moving and time-moving perspectives is plotted as a function of position in line (from the end quartile of the line to the quartile closest to the food).
Fig. 3. Results of Study 3, in which 333 people at an airport answered the ambiguous time
question. The percentage of responses reflecting the ego-moving and time-moving perspectives is plotted as a function of whether respondents had just flown, were about to depart on an
airplane, or were just picking someone up.
Roles of Body and Mind in Abstract Thought
188 VOL. 13, NO. 2, MARCH 2002
We were interested in whether actual motion (simply sitting on a
moving train) is sufficient to influence how people think about time, or
whether actively thinking about ones journey is necessary in addition
to the actual spatial motion. To investigate this, we analyzed whether
the responses of the people on the train varied according to whether
they had answered our ambiguous time question at the beginning,
middle, or end of their journey. People are most likely to be involved
in thinking about their journey when they have just boarded the train
and when they are getting close to their destination. In the middle of
their journey, people tend to relax, read, talk on cell phones, and otherwise mentally disengage from being on the train.
As shown in Figure 4, peoples biases for thinking about time
mimicked this pattern of engaging and disengaging from spatial thinking. Within 5 min of getting on or getting off the train, people were
very likely to take the ego-moving perspective on time (77% and 91%,
respectively, said the meeting was moved to Friday). Passengers in the
middle of their journey, however, showed only a very (only 55% said the meeting was moved to Friday). We calculated each participants minimum distance (in minutes) from a trip end
point (i.e., either the beginning or end of their trip, whichever was
closest). The closer people were to an end point of their trip, the more
likely they were to take the ego-moving perspective on time and say
that the meeting had been moved to Friday, r .23, p .01.
Once again, it appears that peoples thinking about time is tied to
their thinking about spatial motion and not necessarily to the experience
of motion itself. Although all three groups of passengers were having
the same physical experience (all were sitting on a moving train), the
two groups that were most likely to be involved in thinking about their
journey showed the most change in their thinking about time.
Taken together, these studies demonstrate the intimate relationship
between abstract thinking and more experience-based forms of knowledge. Peoples thinking about time is closely linked to their spatial
thinking and their spatial experiences. When people engage in particular types of spatial thinking (e.g., thinking about their journey on a
train or standing in a lunch line), they also unwittingly and dramatically change how they think about time. Further, and contrary to the
very strong, embodied view (that abstract thought is based directly on
sensorimotor representations), we found that actual spatial motion is
neither necessary (Studies 1 and 3) nor sufficient (Study 4) to influence peoples thinking about time. Rather, it is thinking about spatial
motion that seems to underlie thinking about time. It appears that
thinking about abstract domains is built on representations of more experience-based domains that are functionally separable from representations directly involved in sensorimotor experience itself.
But how do these relationships between abstract and concrete domains come about in the first place? It seems likely that some relationships come from correspondences that can be observed in experience.
For example, progression in space and progression in time are often
correlatedthe longer movements are spatially, the longer the amount
of time they are likely to take. These simple correspondences in experience can then be amplified and built on by language. People often
use metaphors from more experience-based domains to talk about
more abstract domains, and often these metaphors go beyond what can
be observed in experience. This means that some abstract knowledge
might be constructed and shaped by language. In fact, this turns out to
be the case. For example, English and Mandarin speakers use different
Fig. 4. Results of Study 4, in which 120 passengers on a train answered the ambiguous time
question. The percentage of responses reflecting the ego-moving and time-moving perspectives is plotted as a function of point in the journey.
Lera Boroditsky and Michael Ramscar
VOL. 13, NO. 2, MARCH 2002 189
spatial metaphors to talk about time, and this difference in language
leads to important differences in the way the two groups think about
time (Boroditsky, 2001). It follows that to properly characterize abstract thought, it will be important to look not only at what comes
from innate wiring and physical experience, but also at the ways in
which languages and cultures have allowed us to go beyond these to
make us smart and sophisticated as we are.
Boroditsky, L. (2000). Metaphoric structuring: Understanding time through spatial metaphors. Cognition, 75, 128.
AcknowledgmentsThe authors would like to thank Amy Jean Reid,
Michael Frank, Webb Phillips, Justin Weinstein, and Davie Yoon for their
heroic feats of data collection.
Boroditsky, L. (2001). Does language shape thought?: English and Mandarin speakers
conceptions of time. Cognitive Psychology, 43, 122.
Clark, H.H. (1973). Space, time, semantics, and the child. In T.E. Moore (Ed.), Cognitive
development and the acquisition of language (pp. 2864). New York: Academic
Gentner, D., Bowdle, B., Wolff, P., & Boronat, C. (2001). Metaphor is like analogy. In D.
Gentner, K.J. Holyoak, & B.N. Kokinov (Eds.), The analogical mind: Perspectives
from cognitive science (pp. 199253). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Gentner, D., Imai, M., & Boroditsky, L. (in press). As time goes by: Understanding time as
spatial metaphor. Language and Cognitive Processes.
Gibbs, R.J. (1994). The poetics of mind: Figurative thought, language, and understanding.
New York: Cambridge University Press.
Holyoak, K.J., & Thagard, P. (1995). Mental leaps: Analogy in creative thought. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (1980). Metaphors we live by. Chicago: University of Chicago
Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (1999). Philosophy in the flesh: The embodied mind and its
challenge to Western thought. New York: Basic Books.
McGlone, M.S., & Harding, J.L. (1998). Back (or forward?) to the future: The role of perspective in temporal language comprehension. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 24, 12111223.
McTaggart, J. (1908). The unreality of time. Mind, 17, 457474.
(RECEIVED 11/22/00; REVISION ACCEPTED 6/5/01)
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