Our next Linguistics Research Seminar features Greg Woodin from the University of Birmingham on ‘The Spatial Representation of Abstract Concepts’

The talk takes place in person and online at 5pm UK time on Monday 17th October 2022

There is more information below. All welcome!

You can find directions to the campus and a campus map here: 


This is a hybrid event so you can also join online. Please email Rola Naeb for the link to join online:


The Spatial Representation of Abstract Concepts


Space is a powerful resource that humans use to conceptualise abstract concepts, such as time, quantity, and emotional valence. In this talk, I discuss three studies I have conducted that investigate the spatial organisation of abstract cognition. The first study focuses on whether the horizontal or vertical axis is preferred for the conceptualisation of abstract concepts using a task where participants placed words in space. We found that the vertical axis was preferred for quantity words (‘least’, ‘less’, ‘more’, ‘most’) and emotional valence words (‘worst’, ‘worse’, ‘better’, ‘best’), whereas the horizontal axis was preferred for time words (‘past’, ‘future’, ‘earliest, ‘earlier’, ‘later’, ‘latest’) and numerals (‘2’, ‘4’, ‘7’, ‘9’). The second study uses the TV News Archive, an online, openly accessible database of over 2.3 million English news broadcasts, to conduct a large scale, quantitative investigation of gestures performed by speakers when using metaphors that discuss numerical quantity in terms of physical size, such as ‘tiny number’ (Woodin et al., 2020). We found that, when referring to greater versus lesser quantities, speakers were far more likely to gesture with (1) an open versus closed hand, (2) an outward versus inward movement, and (3) a wider distance between their hands. The third study explores how spatial representations of emotional valence can influence the interpretation of line graphs (Woodin et al., 2022). Participants answered questions about time series charts depicting positively valenced (vacation days) and negatively valenced (gun deaths) quantities. We inverted the axes of some of these graphs so they either aligned or misaligned with horizontal or vertical representations of emotional valence. Overall, graphs that aligned with valence representations (e.g., up = good) were easier to interpret, but this beneficial effect was outweighed by the adverse effect of inverting the conventional axis direction. These three studies shed light on the spatial organisation of abstract thought. 


Woodin, Greg, & Winter, Bodo. (2018). Placing abstract concepts in space: Quantity, time and emotional valence. Frontiers in Psychology9https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.02169 

Woodin, Greg, Winter, Bodo, & Padilla, Lace. (2022). Conceptual metaphor and graphical convention influence the interpretation of line graphs. IEEE Transactions on Visualization and Computer Graphics28(2), 1209–1221. https://doi.org/10.1109/TVCG.2021.3088343 

Woodin, Greg, Winter, Bodo, Perlman, Marcus, Littlemore, Jeannette, & Matlock, Teenie. (2020). ‘Tiny numbers’ are actually tiny: Evidence from gestures in the TV News Archive. PLOS ONE15(11), e0242142. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0242142 

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