A light cone is the path that a flash of light, emanating from a single event E (localized to a single point in space and a single moment in time) and traveling in all directions, would take through spacetime. Imagine the light confined to a two-dimensional plane, the light from the flash spreads out in a circle after the event E occurs—and when graphed the growing circle with the vertical axis of the graph representing time, the result is a cone, known as the future light cone (some animated diagrams depicting this concept can be seen here). The past light cone behaves like the future light cone in reverse, a circle that contracts in radius at the speed of light until it converges to a point at the exact position and time of the event E. In reality, there are three space dimensions, so the light would actually form an expanding or contracting sphere in 3D space rather than a circle in 2D, and the light cone would actually be a four-dimensional shape. However, the concept is easier to visualize with the number of spatial dimensions reduced from three to two.

Because signals and other causal influences cannot travel faster than light in relativity, the light cone plays an essential role in defining the concept of causality. For a given event E, the set of events that lie on or inside the past light cone of E would also be the set of all events that could send a signal that would have time to reach E and influence it in some way. For example, at a time ten years before E, if we consider the set of all events in the past light cone of E that occur at that time, the result is a sphere with a radius of ten light-years centered on the future position E will occur. So, any point on or inside the sphere could send a signal moving at the speed of light or slower that would have time to influence the event E, while points outside the sphere at that moment would not be able to have any causal influence on E. Likewise, the set of events that lie on or inside the future light cone of E would also be the set of events that could receive a signal sent out from the position and time of E. Events that lie neither in the past or future light cone of E cannot influence or be influenced by E in relativity.