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Olga Kochetkova SpatialNote Olga Kochetkova

Spatial metaphors for time: there are more than you think

We often think that some things are the same for everyone, but when we discuss them in a group, it turns out they’re not?

Here at SpatialNote we have the most interesting discussions inspired by the application we’re working on. The driving force of excellent memorization with SpatialNote is the power of spatial metaphors. It seemed to me that the most simple and common example of a spatial metaphor would be the flow of time: what is behind us represents past, what is in front of us represents the future. The rest of the team disagrees. To them it’s quite obvious that the past is on the left, and the future is on the right. May somebody be wrong in this case? Not really. Spatial metaphors are individual, and your own perception works to help you remember better.


But it is indeed interesting how people in the same culture see time in a different manner. To me, left and right representation of time is a linear metaphor that substitutes on paper the “real” back-front time flow.

I’d rather not to go into the details of spatial metaphors for time imposed by cultures or languages – there are a lot of excellent articles on the subject. Instead, let’s consider individual perception (which, of course, might be shaped to some extent by culture and language).

The options of spatial perceptions of time are plenty: some people see the time flow from left to right, being detached from it; for some time flows from back to front, right through the person, who is always “in the moment”; time can rise from bottom to the top for some people; for some time is cyclic; there’s a tribe that has no notion of the past; some people actually see time, and it’s color-coded too. Malagasy perception of time seemed the most unusual to me, as it is facing the past.

Most popular spatial metaphors of time perception
Most popular spatial metaphors of time perception
Other less known spatial metaphors of time perception
Other less known spatial metaphors of time perception

While only one of those metaphors would be your choice from the top of your head, you can probably see why other people see the way they do. This is the beauty of spatial metaphors. They can’t be wrong. And because they come naturally, you can recall them without an effort, and together with the spatial metaphor you recall the piece of information that the metaphor stands for. What are your spatial metaphors for past and future? Let us know in the comments below.

In SpatialNote you organize your information within cubes. When you decide where to place a piece of information, you create a spatial metaphor, sometimes without even realizing it. Or when you see a ready knowledge structure, you associate the information with its location, and again the spatial metaphors are created; they would be helpful even if they are different from those intended by the person who created the knowledge structure.

Let’s conduct a simple experiment: quick, from the top of your head, on which cube face would you place the following notions?

  • Book
  • Cat
  • Freedom
  • Evil
  • Spring
  • Coffee

Now stop and think why. It’s amazing how you probably never thought of this before, yet you can create meaningful spatial metaphors immediately. Please share your spatial metaphors in the comments below.


Olga finds her thrill in balancing her life roles and making time to learn new skills. She is addicted to TED videos and can’t go a day without singing. Olga has been a part of this team for over five years. She is here to make sure that the company and its customers hear and understand each other correctly.


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Guest Tuesday, 31 March 2020