Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

Constructing the Concept of Time: Roles of Perception, Language, and Culture
by Tillman, Katharine A., Ph.D., University of California, San Diego, 2017, 198; 10270885
Abstract (Summary)

Understanding the nature and origin of abstract concepts, like the concept of time, is a fundamental problem in cognitive science. From infancy, humans can discriminate brief durations, represent event sequences, and associate temporal and spatial magnitudes. By adulthood, Westerners construe of time as an abstract dimension, which is described and measured using language, clocks, and calendars. Are mature concepts of time built from innate perceptual primitives? In this dissertation, I will argue that they are not, drawing on developmental evidence from 3- to 8-year-old children. In Chapter 1, I show that children do not learn duration words like “minute” by associating them with perceptual representations of duration. Instead, children's earliest meanings for duration words encode their relations to one another. For example, preschoolers know their relative ordering (e.g., hour > minute > second) long before they know each word’s approximate duration. Similarly, in Chapter 2, I present evidence that children do not learn deictic time words like “yesterday” by associating them with experienced or anticipated events. I find that children’s earliest meanings for deictic time words include information about their relative order in the past and future, but not about their approximate temporal distance from the present. Both these cases suggest that children initially use linguistic cues to construct ordered semantic domains for time words, and do not map them to perception until later, after learning their formal definitions. Finally, in Chapter 3, I present evidence that the left-to-right “mental timeline” English-speaking adults use to organize events is not derived from innate space-time associations. I show that, unlike kindergarteners and adults, preschoolers do not spontaneously represent time linearly. Instead, conventional linear mappings between time and space develop slowly throughout early childhood, in response to increasing cultural exposure and education. Together, these studies suggest that abstract time concepts in children are not built from perceptual primitives, but from structures available in language and cultural artifacts.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Barner, David A.
Commitee: Bergen, Benjamin, Boroditsky, Lera, Ferreira, Victor, Heyman, Gail
School: University of California, San Diego
Department: Psychology
School Location: United States -- California
Source: DAI-B 78/12(E), Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: Developmental psychology
Keywords: Abstract concepts, Cognitive development, Mental timeline, Time, Word learning
Publication Number: 10270885
ISBN: 9780355062793