Synthesism pt. 2 space-time and the social sciences

I am not the first person to discuss how the concepts of space and time play into our psychology and socializing. There are many ways we engage with these concepts daily. But let’s start with what space and time in the hard sciences is. Space is measured in distances and is a three-dimensional thing. We can locate an object in space using coordinates that stand for width, length and depth. An object in space is a certain width, length, and depth from my center of gravity and when I advance toward this object, time advances. That, by some, is considered adding a fourth dimension to the puzzle. One cannot advance through space without advancing through time though even as we sit still time is known to be advancing, though can we ever truly sit absolutely still and still be considered alive. Point being, it is called space-time because the two concepts are linked.

To graph things in four dimensions is to draw an object or point in three-dimensional space at different points in time. Now, what if we wanted to graph a fifth quality of something that is linked to space and time? What if we want to see how hot an object is depending on the time of day and its location? To graph this, we can have the point on a graph be different sizes or colors depending on how hot or cool the object is at a given point in space-time.

We could really do something like this with any measurable variable including psychological concepts like mapping how sentimentally valuable each object in our visual field is let alone simply overlaying on our visual field the outline of each separate object we can cognitively identify. Meaning, what we do daily is scan our environment for meaningful units called objects that can be utilized for various goal-oriented behaviors. There is a fifth dimension we map onto our surroundings depending on the context we are in beyond just the space things occupy and the time. Though, we do simply scan our environments automatically for space, distances to things, and whether objects are moving over time and such.

Backing up, what if we wanted to see how depression varies by decade and GPS coordinates? We could graph decade on one axis, the two GPS coordinates on the other two axes, and color code the dot drawn somewhere along these axes so that the darker blue, the more depressed on average people at a specific location and time are. Now, forget about time for a second and imagine a color-coded map of the world with bluer places being sadder. In a way, we are now looking at psychological space, specifically along the dimension of depression. Kurt Lewin, mentioned before in part one of these essays, referred to something called the life space, which is not only one’s visual field but the parts of the environment, the mental environment, including our representations or perceptions of the physical environment that are salient or relevant in the present moment.

Given the task at hand, different things in or qualities of the environment will come in and out of focus. This is psychological space-time and just like a map of mood across the globe, distance and time do not have to be the individual’s estimate of physical distances and chronological time, though it can be, it also includes internal objects called thoughts and things like emotions. So what is distance when it comes to emotions? What is time when it comes to the intangible, mental world? And how does the self-aware entity or particle move through this space-time but through their expressed behaviors and their thought process? A vector, something that describes momentum and direction can signify movement towards a goal in a plan, for example, but also the direction and speed with which a person will literally move.

Time and distance and movement through the two can mean different things in different domains of human behavior. In the purely objective domain, imagine a room with a couch facing a table on which is a television set and remote control. The objects dictate what motions are possible and likely, their dimensions, volume, tells us where a human can stand, etc. etc. We could come up with a 3D image of a person in all the physical positions possible to take in this setup. This is not to mention how our emotions and thoughts can determine what we do in the setup, for example what channel we choose to watch. In the case of predicting pure bodily position and motion, we must consider what individual objects are in the room, what the function of these objects are, not to mention the time of day, how much time one has to be in the room, their age (another measure of time) and the volume of the objects. All of these may or may not play into predicting a person’s behavior. Someone may feel too down and lethargic to do anything but sit and stare at a dark screen, hence psychology comes in too.

But, let’s stick to treating the person as a creature that is not self-aware in the way humans are with a self-concept and recognizing ourselves in a mirror unlike most other animals, that assesses its environment as a set of objects that have a certain volume, texture, color, and change or don’t over time and that have innate functions (as in, the couch is for sitting on facing the TV). All we can do is estimate with more or less accuracy space and time and our location thereof. This is the first of the modalities or metaphors mentioned in the first of these essays we use to describe ourselves and conceptualize our consciousness with; the cold, hard objective assessment of our physical environment and our position relative to this environment with no labels attached to things other than their objective purpose. In this case, psychological space-time mirrors regular space-time with the addition of an assessment of the function of things in this space-time.

I use the term subjective relativity to describe the notion that our estimates of space and time do not match up perfectly with the actual passages of time and the measurement of distances. Time and distance, again, can be defined more abstractly depending on the psychological concepts we are mapping to the environment. Put a person in the setup from before and now closeness (distance) to the person becomes something entirely different than something measured in inches or centimeters. The social self that is more or less unique from others, the one that has a social identity and fits in this or that category of people, is another metaphor we use or a (component of) self we, as people, most of us at least, tend to believe in. Time for the social psychological entity is measured in what are called episodic memories. More on this later, but suffice it to say, the passage of time can feel different depending on the number of and emotions attached to memories of our life we can recall.

The next segment will go over the different contexts and types of psychological space-time, each with unique definitions of distance and measurements of time. We will also get into how these concepts unify the different sub-disciplines of psychological science.

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