Neural measures of sensitivity to a culturally evolved space-time language: shared biases and conventionalization

AbstractWhen asked to convey temporal concepts such as ‘yesterday’ and ‘tomorrow’ via movements of a dot on a vertical bar, American undergraduates utilize analogical mappings between spatial and temporal concepts. Previous work has revealed two different strategies, hypothesized to require differing amounts of artificial language exposure to learn. Different pairs of participants, when interacting about these time concepts, all settled on the same association between spatial magnitude and temporal duration, with larger movements used to convey temporal intervals of greater duration. However, the association between particular spatial locations and temporal concepts such as ‘past’ and ‘future’, elicited much more arbitrary solutions, where the mappings differed across pairs of participants. These findings suggested that the duration mapping might be driven by mostly shared, initial cognitive biases, while contrasting mappings for past/future result more clearly from extensive linguistic interaction. Here we tested whether the brain responds differently to duration mappings as compared to direction mappings by recording participants’ EEG as they learn a mini-language that includes both kinds. ERPs time locked to English words elicited larger amplitude N400 and P600 when they did not match the preceding signal than when they did match. The P600 results were larger and more robust for the duration than the vertical stimuli, suggesting participants were more sensitive to violations of the duration mapping scheme. These data support our hypothesis that people have a cognitive bias for the duration mappings that supports their early emergence in the development of a semiotic system.

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