Cognition has multiple meanings and is often used as a general term for all mental thought processes. More specifically, it often refers to the use and acquisition of both language and knowledge (including self-knowledge). Other mental processes frequently associated with cognition are judgment, perception, reasoning, awareness, intuition, and memory. Time is a fluid idea in relation to cognition, interweaving with it; the idea of time is shaped by cognitive processes, yet also shapes those same processes. Metacognition, mental representation, attention, and perception seem to be the primary areas where time and cognition most overlap.
Present mental states are formed and grounded in past interactions and ideas; these past interactions arethen imposed on future possibilities. Nonetheless, thought about thought, often called metacognition, can invert this process and view it in an opposite manner from what is normally considered. Although time usually is thought of as flowing from the past to the present and then into the future, metacognition will often begin by forming a plan (projecting a course of action into the future), carrying out what is planned in the present, and then considering what has been accomplished (by looking at actions that are now past).
This process of reflecting on one’s own mental state can be regarded as a form of mental time travel. It is also possible to contemplate times not personally experienced, such as the remote past or the distant future. A related idea is the mental representation of self as both a past memory and also as imagined in the future. Indeed, the Bischof- Kohler hypothesis, which claims that nonhuman animals are unable to consider future needs, holds that it is this ability that distinguishes humans from other animals. Others believe humans are not the only species to manifest this ability; research on the matter continues. Thus far, however, a conclusive case has not been made either way.
This flexibility in relation to views of time may be further demonstrated by the preference of English speakers (who consider time sequences as before/after) in contrast to Mandarin Chinese speakers (who often prefer to regard time sequences as up/down). Neither of these spatial metaphors is misplaced; time is often viewed as an object, more as a physical entity than a mental construct. Nonetheless, whether time is actually a physically existent entity or not can be debated. What is certain is that people often talk about time in terms of space but rarely about space in terms of time. It has also been determined that when the hippocampus (a part of the brain) is damaged, not only spatial memory but also episodic memory (the memory of particular events) is impaired. This suggests the two are intertwined in thought.
Humans have developed multiple gradations with which to consider time: minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years. It has been suggested that both verbal and image-based processes are used. Perhaps this is why one often might recall exactly where and what time of day something happened . . . but not exactly the month or year.
Time can also seem to expand and contract depending on how intently one is paying attention to it. “Attention” is generally regarded as a cognitive function that allows a person to notice some aspects of a situation or object but not others. Exactly which aspects are noticed may to some extent be culturally dependent. What matters for this discussion is the fact that while one is noticing them, the nature of one’s concentration is impacted. When a person is concentrating intensely, the passage of time may not be noticed at all; consequently it may seem as if time passes very quickly. When waiting for something to happen, however, it may seem as though time passes ever so slowly. Indeed, in such a situation it may be there is nothing else to pay attention to except the passage of time.
See also Amnesia; Consciousness; Critical Reflection and Time; Intuition; Language, Evolution of; Memory; Psychology and Time; Time, Subjective Flow of; Time, Teaching; Time, Units of
Casasanto, D., & Boroditsky, L. (2000). Metaphoric structuring: Understanding time through spatial metaphors [Electronic version]. Cognition, 75, 1-28. Retrieved December 18, 2007, from www- psych.stanford.edu/~lera/papers
Evans, V. (2003). The structure of time: Language, meaning, and temporal cognition. Philadelphia: John Benjamins.
Suddendorf, T., & Corballis, M. (2007). The evolution of foresight: What is mental time travel and is it unique to humans? [Electronic version]. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 39(3) 299-313.