Of course, reality can be experienced and represented in various modalities. But, there is always a tension between spatial and temporal relations.[i] This tension can be revealed by distorting the spatial and temporal relations, so that the perceptual structures become increasingly nonsensical. Consider, for example:

(1) Colourless green ideas sleep furiously.

This sentence is as nonsensical as a visual scene of a distant object appearing to be supported by a near object—such as the tiny man standing on an outstretched hand in figure 2. Although the objects are suitably positioned to produce the illusion, we know that tiny men do not exist, just as “Colourless green ideas sleep furiously” does not make sense. The gap in space between these objects corresponds to the gap in meaning between these words. Although they appear together, they do not belong together. The failure to choose suitable words in language corresponds to the failure to perceive depth in space.


Figure 2. A distant object appearing to be connected to a near object.

At the other end of the spatio-temporal continuum, sentences are composed of words that are semantically connected, but poorly arranged. For example:

(2) Dogs harmlessly young bark friendly.

This sentence could be likened to a portrait that repositions facial features in bizarre, yet still face-like assemblages, such as in figure 3. The elements seem to belong together, to the extent that they are semantically related. But, their order is distorted.


Figure 3. The temporal distortion of facial features.

Since (1) lacks spatial integrity and (2) lacks temporal integrity, they each sit at opposite ends of the continuum, with (1) at the temporal end and (2) at the spatial end. Of course, spatial and temporal relations are usually deployed to produce sensible utterances, by interacting to varying degrees, as per the notion of a continuum. The purpose of distorting them is to highlight the variables that serve to situate the mind within language.

The distortion of spatial relations, depicted by the miniature person illusion, demonstrates how contexts bind to objects. The distant figure is drawn into the context of the girl holding out her hand. The context carries the object, like a wave carries a surfer. The interpretation of information depends on the co-ordination of spatial and temporal relations, which the brain registers in the form of different frequencies becoming phase-locked together. [ii] By contrast, the distorted portrait depicts a context failing to bind to objects, which could be likened to a bumpy ride, caused by an irregular seabed or poorly designed surfboard.

If we equate spatial distortion with neurosis, we can see why neurotics are so convinced of their troubles: the tiny man illusion is compelling. Likewise, if we equate temporal distortion with psychosis, we can see why psychotics are so confused by their perception of reality: it is hard to read such a distorted face. Consequently, the difference between psychosis and neurosis – long thought to be a dichotomy – might be due to the mind grappling with opposite ends of the spatio-temporal continuum.

Next chapter: Psychology.


[i] Kierkegaard, S. ([1843] 1987). Either/Or, Part II, Trans. Howard V. Hong & Edna H. Hong, Princeton University Press, p.136.

“If one traces dialectically and just as much historically the development of the esthetically beautiful, one will find that the direction of this movement is from spatial categories to temporal categories, and that the perfecting of art is contingent upon the possibility of gradually detaching itself more and more from space and aiming toward time. This constitutes the transition and the significance of the transition from sculpture to painting, as Schelling early pointed out. Music has time as its element but has no continuance in time; its significance is the continual vanishing in time; it sounds in time, but it also fades and has no continuance. Ultimately poetry is the highest of all the arts and therefore also the art that best knows how to affirm the meaning of time. It does not need to limit itself to the moment in the sense that painting does; neither does it disappear without a trace in the sense that music does. But despite all this, it, too, is compelled, as we have seen, to concentrate in the moment. It has, therefore, its limitation and cannot, as shown above, portray that of which the truth is precisely the temporal sequence. And yet this, that time is affirmed, is not a disparagement of the esthetic; on the contrary, the more this occurs, the richer and fuller the esthetic ideal becomes.”

[ii] Singer, W. (2007). Binding by synchrony, Scholarpedia, 2 (12), p.1657.

“Cells oscillating at low frequencies are able to integrate over longer time windows and this does in principle allow for the nesting of relations: Slowly oscillating cell groups can integrate activity from fast oscillating cell groups even if these are oscillating at different frequencies. Thus, while the features represented by fast oscillating groups remain segregated, they may be bound together by more slowly oscillating groups. In principle, this allows for the encoding of hierarchically structured relational graphs and the encoding of nested relations.”