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Facing the past: Cognitive flexibility in the front-back mapping of time


Casasanto,  Daniel
Neurobiology of Language Department, MPI for Psycholinguistics, Max Planck Society;
Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour, External Organizations;
Department of Psychology, The New School for Social Research, USA;

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De la Fuente, J., Santiago, J., Roma, A., Dumitrache, C., & Casasanto, D. (2012). Facing the past: Cognitive flexibility in the front-back mapping of time. Poster presented at the 5th International Conference on Spatial Cognition: Space and Embodied Cognition [ICSC 2012], Rome.

Cite as: https://hdl.handle.net/11858/00-001M-0000-0010-0C07-4
In many languages the future is in front and the past behind, but in some cultures (like Aymara) the past is in front. Is it possible to find this mapping as an alternative conceptualization of time in other cultures? If so, what are the factors that affect its choice out of the set of available alternatives? In a paper and pencil task, participants placed future or past events either in front or behind a character (a schematic head viewed from above). A sample of 24 Islamic participants (whose language also places the future in front and the past behind) tended to locate the past event in the front box more often than Spanish participants. This result might be due to the greater cultural value assigned to tradition in Islamic culture. The same pattern was found in a sample of Spanish elders (N = 58), what may support that conclusion. Alternatively, the crucial factor may be the amount of attention paid to the past. In a final study, young Spanish adults (N = 200) who had just answered a set of questions about their past showed the past-in-front pattern, whereas questions about their future exacerbated the future-in-front pattern. Thus, the attentional explanation was supported: attended events are mapped to front space in agreement with the experiential connection between attending and seeing. When attention is paid to the past, it tends to occupy the front location in spite of available alternative mappings in the language-culture.