Moving from strange research to strange ways in which the mind works, I thought I'd talk a little bit about concepts of time. Lera Boroditsky, who's now at Stanford, has done some really interesting research looking at the way our concepts of space structure our concepts of time1. Her findings indicate that the spatial terms we use to describe time influence our perception of time. For instance, when we are primed to think about certain spatial directions, this will influence the way we interpret temporal statements with ambiguous directionality.
In English, we have two primary ways of speaking about time in terms of space. Either we are moving forward through time (e.g., "We're coming up on midterms") or time is moving past us (e.g., "The deadline is fast approaching"). These to ways of speaking about time in spatial terms imply different directions. In the first, things are moving forward from us; in the second, things are moving from our front to our back. The ambiguous sentence Boroditsky uses in her studies is, "Next Wednesday's meeting has been moved forward two days." Ordinarily, about half of the people who read this interpret it as meaning that the meeting has been moved to Monday, while the other have read it as meaning the meeting has been moved to Friday. However, if people are shown a picture of a particular type of movement (movement toward an object, or movement of an object toward us), analogous to one of the two ways of talking about time in terms of space, prior to reading this sentence, then more often than not they will interpret the movement of the meeting as being in the direction consistent with the movement in the picture. Thus, people who see movement toward an object interpret the sentence as meaning that the meeting has been moved to Friday, while people who see an object moving toward them interpret it as meaning that the sentence has been moved to Monday.
Another interesting finding people whose native language conceptualizes time with a different directionality (e.g., vertical instead of horizontal) interpret temporal statements differently. When primed with pictures depicting a directionality consistent with their native language's description of time, people are faster to verify the truth of certain statements about temporal relations (e.g., April comes after March). This implies that our time concepts are heavily influenced by the way our languages relate time and space conceptually.
This is very interesting work, though it's hard to tell exactly what's going on when spatial primes influence our interpretation of temporal statements. It may be that we are still using the same conceptual structure, and thus that temporal statements do not have meaning independent of spatial concepts, or it may mean that the language with which we talk about time, given its connection to the language with whiche we talk about space, can easily be primed with spatial concepts. A lot of research is needed to test the different alternative explanations.
The reason I've brought all this up, and tortured you with a lengthy description of it, is that there's another quirky thing that we do that I want to describe. Since the days of Kurt Lewin, psychologists have characterized human motivations in terms of approach and avoidance. As simple as this characterization seems, it has turned out to be an incredibly powerful descriptor of a wide range of human behaviors. Since approach and avoidance are both directional (egocentrically), it stands to reason that they might also influence our interpretations of ambiguous temporal statements like Boroditsky's "Next Wednesday's meeting." As it turns out, they do! If, in place of "meeting," you substitute a positive event (e.g., a party) or a negative one (e.g., a dental appointment), this will affect how people interpret the sentence. Positive events are interpreted as moving to Monday (approach), while negative events are interpreted as moving to Friday (avoidance).
What does all this mean about time perception? Well, for one, it means that it is highly subjective, but we already knew that. However, what I find so interesting is that as interpreters of temporal statements we can be so... fickle. I could interpret the exact same "Next Wendesday's..." sentence two different ways at different times, just because of my attitude towards what comes after Wednesday in the sentence is different (at first, I might have been excited about the party, but then I discovered that my ex-girlfriend is going to be there, and suddenly the party became a strong avoidance motivator). If you'd given me the sentence when I was excited about the party, I would have thought it had moved to Monday, but if you'd given it to me after learning that my ex would be there, I would have believed it had moved to Friday. This sort of thing must drive people who are trying to come up with theories of reference that can account for such statements batty!
1 For example, Boroditsky, L. (2000). Metaphoric Structuring: Understanding time through spatial metaphors. Cognition, 75(1), 1-28. Boroditsky, L. (2001) and Does language shape thought? English and Mandarin speakers' conceptions of time. Cognitive Psychology, 43(1), 1-22. She also has done some really, really cool research looking at the way we conceptualize number in terms of space, but I can't find a reference on her website, so she might not have published it yet. She gave a poster on it at a conference last November, though, so look for it soon.