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Space, time, and causality provide a natural structure for organizing our experience. These abstract categories allow us to think relationally in the most basic sense; understanding simple events requires one to represent the spatial relations among objects, the relative durations of actions or movements, and the links between causes and effects. The present fMRI study investigates the extent to which the brain distinguishes between these fundamental conceptual domains. Participants performed a 1-back task with three conditions of interest (space, time, and causality). Each condition required comparing relations between events in a simple verbal narrative. Depending on the condition, participants were instructed to either attend to the spatial, temporal, or causal characteristics of events, but between participants each particular event relation appeared in all three conditions. Contrasts compared neural activity during each condition against the remaining two and revealed how thinking about events is deconstructed neurally. Space trials recruited neural areas traditionally associated with visuospatial processing, primarily bilateral frontal and occipitoparietal networks. Causality trials activated areas previously found to underlie causal thinking and thematic role assignment, such as left medial frontal and left middle temporal gyri, respectively. Causality trials also produced activations in SMA, caudate, and cerebellum; cortical and subcortical regions associated with the perception of time at different timescales. The time contrast, however, produced no significant effects. This pattern, indicating negative results for time trials but positive effects for causality trials in areas important for time perception, motivated additional overlap analyses to further probe relations between domains. The results of these analyses suggest a closer correspondence between time and causality than between time and space.

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