Visuospatial Asymmetries and Emotional Valence Influence Mental Time Travel

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Abstract

Spatial information is tightly intertwined with temporal and valence-based information. Namely, “past” is represented on the left, and “future” on the right, along a horizontal mental timeline. Similarly, right is associated with positive, whereas left is negative. We developed a novel task to examine the effects of emotional valence and temporal distance on mental representations of time. We compared positivity biases, where positive events are positioned closer to now, and right hemisphere emotion biases, where negative events are positioned to the left. When the entire life span was used, a positivity bias emerged; positive events were closer to now. When timeline length was reduced, positivity and right hemisphere emotion biases were consistent for past events. In contrast, positive and negative events were equidistant from now in the future condition, suggesting positivity and right hemisphere emotion biases opposed one another, leading events to be positioned at a similar distance. We then reversed the timeline by moving past to the right and future to the left. Positivity biases in the past condition were eliminated, and negative events were placed slightly closer to now in the future condition. We conclude that an underlying left-to-right mental representation of time is necessary for positivity biases to emerge for past events; however, our mental representations of future events are inconsistent with positivity biases. These findings point to an important difference in the way in which we represent the past and the future on our mental timeline.

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