Character  &  Context

How Our Brains Go the Distance

Illustration of a pink brain running

By Dave Nussbaum

On her National Geographic blog, Only HumanVirginia Hughes explores the implications of the latest work on the relationship between different forms of distance (spatial, temporal, social) and how they’re encoded in the brain. The latest findings, from Carolyn Parkinson, Shari Liu, and Thalia Wheatley in the Journal of Neuroscience show that similar neural circuitry is responsible for encoding the different types distance. Here’s the original 2010 paper on the Construal-Level Theory of Psychological Distance by Yaacov Trope and Nira Lieberman

Researchers have long thought that these various examples of “psychological distance” are represented by some of the same circuits in the brain. A new brain-imaging study strongly bolsters the idea, finding that certain patterns of neural activity underlie all of our judgments about distance — whether in space, time, or the social realm.

The results makes sense, the researchers say, given that all of these distances have something in common: They give us a way to move beyond the visceral, here-and-now experience of our lives. More provocatively, this ability to “go the distance” might be uniquely human.

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