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how we conceive of the passage of time…

December 13, 2010

Close your eyes and imagine the seconds flying by… chances are you saw an indescribable stream of time (or maybe some more concrete representation of time) traveling from left to right. That is typical for English speakers. Previous research has shown that spatial conceptualization of time is linked to the direction that the written language unfolds (e.g. left to right for English, but right to left for Arabic). Also, some other cultures have shown evidence that they conceive of time as unfolding away from their body – moving ahead represents moving forward in time. In a recent article in Psychological Science (“Remembrances of Times East” – Boroditsky & Gaby, 2010), a couple of psychologists examined the spatial representation of time among a group of Australian Aboriginals whose language does not include spatial terms like “left” or “right”. Instead, they communicate spatial relations in cardinal terms – referencing whether something is “north” or “south-southwest” from their present location. The researchers aim was to describe the conceptualization of time that would accompany this linguistic convention.

In the study,  participants placed a series of photos in chronological order – e.g. a series of photos of an individual aging going from youngest to oldest or photos of pizza being eaten – and the researchers recorded the placement of the photos during the task. As expected, almost all English speaking participants ordered the photos from left to right to represent the passage of time. The Aborigines also showed a consistent pattern, but it was tied to the cardinal directions. The early events were placed to the east of the later events – so depending on which direction the Aborigine sat during the task, the order could go right-left, left-right, forward-back, etc. The authors note that the spatial arrangement of east to west mirrors the passage of the sun in the sky (as opposed to a written language).

This research does not begin to answer all of the questions we might have about how we think about time (it is a descriptive study, after all), but it does present some interesting data that can help us think about how our conceptualization of the world might be tied to our experiences. Culture is a powerful determinate of those experiences – being able to appreciate the implications of this helps us to better understand both the flexibility of our cognitive systems and how important it is to not assume that all people think the same way (an error made more than once by psychologists).

basic results - Gaby & Boroditsky, 2010

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