Time and numbers on the fingers: Dissociating the mental timeline and mental number line

AbstractPeople use space to conceptualize abstract domains like time and number. This tendency may be a cognitive universal, but the specifics of people’s implicit space-time and space-number associations vary across cultures. How does culture shape our abstract concepts? In Western cultures, both time and numbers are arranged in people’s minds along an imaginary horizontal line, from left to right, but in other cultures the directions of the mental timeline (MTL) and mental number line (MNL) are reversed. The directions of both the MTL and MNL have long been assumed to depend on the direction in which people read and write text. Here we argue that this assumption is false, and show that the MTL and MNL are shaped by different aspects of cultural experience. In a training experiment, participants spatialized time and numbers in opposite directions across their fingers. Training changed the MTL and MNL in opposite directions, as predicted by a general principle called the CORrelations in Experience (CORE) principle: people spatialize abstract conceptual domains in their minds according to the ways these domains are spatialized in their experience.

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