We May Be Born With A Concept of Time

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Just about every branch of human thought has tried to make sense of the concepts of time and space, whether or not they exist as constants and how accurately our own measurements can represent each. This is all perhaps just part of being human, as a study suggests that we determine relationships between time and space from the moment of our birth, according to a study published in the journal PNAS, conducted at a maternity ward in the Hospital Bichat of Paris, France, which made use of 96 full-term newborn infants as its test subjects.

Linking the length of a song’s running time to a series of numbers — say two minutes and thirty seconds’ running time — is perhaps second nature to many of us, drawn from our grasp of simple mathematics, but perhaps our ability to interpret the numbers on the back of a CD come from something that predates our own experience.

The study conducted by Drs. Aurelie Coubart and Veronique Izard suggests we may be born sensitive to a spatial relationship between increasing numbers and an increase in auditory length. A series of three experiments were conducted, each using a different group of the newborns, in which they were shown a brief 60-second video clip with sound.

Studies in the past have already shown that infants are aware that there is a relationship between the visual and the auditory. This effort by Coubart and her team, however, has documented that the newborns were most interested in watching the clips where the colors and sound corresponded, thus sensing the relationship between spatial increase. The video clips consisted of visual lines, presented with sounds ranging between 6 to 18 syllables long. Many of these infants were only a few hours old (on average, they had been born less than 20 hours prior to the experiment) but when they watched, it was clear to the researchers that their brains were already interpreting the stimuli on the test screens.

When they were shown clips in which numbers failed to correspond with the movement of the lines, only five out of 16 infants continued to look at the test. In tests where only the direction changed, however, infants looked just as long as they had at the visuals where direction and number remained in a consistent direction.

Even within just a few hours of being born, their brains were already forming spatial-temporal relationships with what they were seeing. After just one pairing of visual line movement and sound accompaniment, they were already interpreting what they saw, much in the same way as placing increasing numbers along a line, that the mind can be tuned to wavelengths of time and space.

What now remains to be solved is whether or not infants are also able to distinguish between different wavelengths from their moment of birth, a byproduct of the evolution of human cognition. To an extent, spatial knowledge may even be taking place before birth, the result of a cognitive learning mechanism that accelerates development in the brain.


There are still some variables that the researchers had to deal with, as the tests did not stop for infants who fell asleep or sneezed, and the study also did not account for gender differences, which could also be significant when learning about brain development. If their results echo in future studies, perhaps even our own perception of the world as adults, as defined by time and space, may be altered completely, perhaps closer to Einstein’s metaphor of time as a river.

(Editor’s note: If you enjoy this article, consider a print or digital subscription!)

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