The spatial organisation of abstract thought

Old Gym LG10
Tuesday 29 October 2019 (16:15-17:15)

Seminar organiser: Marcus Perlman (

  • English Language Research Seminar
  • Speaker: Greg Woodin (Birmingham)


Space is a powerful resource which humans habitually make use of to understand abstract concepts, such as time (e.g., Lakoff & Johnson, 1980; Gibbs, 1994; Barsalou, 1999). In this talk, I discuss three studies I have conducted investigating the spatial basis of abstract cognition. The first study concerns whether the horizontal or vertical axis is preferred for the spatialization of quantity, time, and emotional valence, involving a task where participants were instructed to place words in space (Woodin & Winter, 2018). The second study builds upon the first while focusing on spatial differences between different types of quantity, such as ordinal and cardinal numbers presented as numerals or number words (Woodin, Littlemore, & Winter, submitted). Across these two studies, we find that the horizontal axis is preferred for time (earlier-left, later-right), whereas the vertical axis is preferred for quantity (less-down, more-up) and emotional valence (bad-down, good-up). The third study reports a large-scale, quantitative investigation of gestures that speakers perform while using metaphors relating to quantity and evaluation, such as ‘tiny number’ and ‘high standard’ (Woodin, Winter, Perlman, Littlemore, & Matlock, under review). Using the TV News Archive, an online, open-access database of nearly 1.9 million English news broadcasts, we show that the gestures of speakers can reveal whether the metaphor used in their speech reflects underlying metaphorical thought processes. Overall, these studies shed light on the spatial organisation of abstract thought.


Barsalou, L. W. (1999). Perceptual symbol systems. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 22, 577–660.

Gibbs R. W. Jr. (1994). The Poetics of Mind: Figurative, Thought, Language and Understanding. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lakoff, G. & Johnson, M. (1980). Metaphors We Live by. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Woodin, G., Littlemore, J., & Winter. (submitted). More is mostly up: Vertical trumps horizontal in spatial metaphors for quantity. Cognitive Science.

Woodin, G. & Winter, B. (2018). Placing abstract concepts in space: Quantity, time and emotional valence. Frontiers in Psychology, 9: 1-14.

Woodin, G., Winter, B., Perlman, M., Littlemore, J., & Matlock, T. (under review). Metaphoric

gestures for quantity and evaluation in the TV News Archive. PLOS ONE.

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