Reasoning about time

Temporal reasoning is an essential process that underlies how humans conceptualize time. Reasoners routinely make inferences about durations in order to carry out time-dependent tasks, such as picking a friend up at the airport.

But, how do people mentally represent and reason about temporal relations, i.e., relations such as before, after, while, and during? Such relations describe events that can persist across multiple points in time, and many logical frameworks exist that describe ideal temporal reasoning patterns. But those frameworks do not explain how people mentally represent time, and so they cannot characterize the mental processes or the strategies people use when reasoning about time. Recent treatments of temporal reasoning explain how people mentally represent temporal relations. They are based on the idea that people construct mental models, i.e., iconic mental simulations, to draw conclusions from premises or observations. Models can be used to reason about time in two ways: first, they can implement a mental timeline, i.e., models can use space to represent time. To mentally simulate durative relations, reasoners do not represent all of the time points across which an event might endure. Instead, they construct discrete tokens that stand in place of the beginnings and endings of durative events.

Second, models can use time to represent time, i.e., they can mentally represent a sequence of events that unfold in the same order as would unfold in real life. Recent studies show that people use such kinematic models when they solve problems, abductively infer informal algorithms, and deductively infer the consequences of algorithms.



Monica Bucciarelli, Geoff Goodwin, Phil Johnson-Laird, Laura Kelly, Sangeet Khemlani, Robert Mackiewicz, Cristina Quelhas, Walter Schaeken, Andre Vandierendonck


Representative papers

  • Baguley, T., & Payne, S. J. (2000). Long-term memory for spatial and temporal mental models includes construction processes and model structure. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 53A, 479-512.
  • Kelly, L., Khemlani, S., & Johnson-Laird, P.N. (2020). Reasoning about durations. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 32, 2103-2116.
  • Kelly, L., Prabhakar, J., & Khemlani, S. (2019). Updating and reasoning: Different processes, different models, different functions. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 42, e258.
  • Khemlani, S., Harrison, A. M., & Trafton, J. G. (2015). Episodes, events, and models. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 9, 590, 1-13.
  • Khemlani, S. S., Mackiewicz, R., Bucciarelli, M., & Johnson- Laird, P. N. (2013). Kinematic mental simulations in abduction and deduction. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 110, 16766–16771.
  • Juhos, C., Quelhas, A.C., & Johnson-Laird, P.N., (2012). Temporal and spatial relations in sentential reasoning. Cognition, 122, 393-404.
  • Schaeken, W., & Johnson-Laird, P. N. (2000). Strategies in temporal reasoning. Thinking & Reasoning, 6, 193-219.
  • Schaeken, W., Johnson-Laird, P. N., & d’Ydewalle, G. (1996). Mental models and temporal reasoning. Cognition, 60, 205-234.
  • Vandierendonck, A., & De Vooght, G. (1997). Working memory constraints on linear reasoning with spatial and temporal contents. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 50A, 803-820.