Time Flies Like an Arrow, Fruit Flies Like a Banana
How we conceptualise time depends on whether we are bilingual or blind, arriving or departing
From the vault, an article I published prior to my deplatforming with a dash of new content. Who has four disc bulges and two thumbs: me. Hopefully, it’s not an insurmountable issue and I’ll be back to sitting on my tuchus and writing in no time. Speaking of time:
We measure time, we study it, and we experience it as a gush or trickle depending on factors such as emotion, age, and even the tempo of background music. But before we can even begin to broach the topic of time perception, we must ask: how do we conceptualise time?
Abstraction of abstractions, what do we think about when we think about time?
We each have a time machine
Why do we spend so much of our lives ruminating on the past and anticipating the future? It’s largely because our brains are time machines—the only place where time travel is possible.
“We all have our time machines. Some take us back, they’re called memories. Some take us forward, they’re called dreams.”
Despite accounting for only 2% of bodily mass, the brain uses 20% of our energy, more than any other organ. Meagre in tooth and claw, it’s our wits that have allowed us to survive and thrive as a species, apex predators of the animal kingdom (even if we do play second fiddle to single-celled organisms).
In the novel Blindsight, humanity experiences first contact with intelligent aliens who have little faculty or, indeed, use for language. Their intelligence, evolved only to navigate the labyrinthine complexity of their biology, is contrasted with humanity’s capacity for meta-cognition, and therefore consciousness:
“[The brain] consumes evermore computational resources, bogs itself down with endless recursion and irrelevant simulations. Metaprocesses bloom like cancer, and awaken, and call themselves I.”
(Peter Watts, “Blindsight”, 2006)
Of course, such simulations are hardly irrelevant and are in fact highly adaptive. Consciousness might be resource-intensive, but its survival advantages are undeniable: knowledge of our past enables us to more accurately predict, and navigate, our future.
Something else to ponder: your body is a biological clock, with “accuracy to within a few minutes out of the 1440 minutes per day”.
Conceptualising the passage of time
Metaphor enables abstract thought by grounding it in the tangible and familiar.
How we perceive the world is therefore heavily influenced by our sensory and motor systems—consider what life would be like if we had the distributed nervous system of an octopus, for instance. As fascinating as embodied cognition is—I digress.
Cross-modal perception is common to a degree in all of us. Physical and emotional warmth light up the same areas of our brain, we instinctively feel Kiki is sharp and Bouba is smooth because of the way they sound, and we think of time elapsed as a distance traveled or quantity accrued.
Bilinguals are flexible thinkers
For English speakers, duration is a distance travelled. While we might say ‘a long wedding’, for Greek speakers, such a wedding is ‘big’ (and I don’t just mean the guest list!). There are many languages where time is conceived as something which grows in volume.
In an experiment by Bylund and Athanasopoulos (2017), Spanish-Swedish bilinguals were prompted with either the Spanish or Swedish word for duration, and as a result, experienced the passage of time differently.
Those prompted in Spanish ignored lines lengthening left to right on a screen and instead based their time estimates on an animation of a container filling up. Those instructed in Swedish did the exact opposite, showing line rather than container-congruent spatial interference for estimating duration. (In each experiment, the language-congruent visual indicator was out of sync with real-time.)
I suppose these two analogies—distance and size—owe to ancient timekeeping devices which grew or shrank in length (candle, incense clock, and the sundial’s shadow) or else accrued mass (the water clock and the hourglass). Not to mention the fading light bookending each day and the apparent motion of the sinking sun.
Synesthetes can see through time
In people with synesthesia, disparate sensory modalities are inextricably intertwined, “developed and modified by semantic mechanisms”. To one such benefactor of the condition, ‘Dave’ might taste like a chilli (sound-taste), the number four might glow green (grapheme-colour), and calendar months might unfurl like a filmstrip in the air around them (visuospatial synesthesia).
That’s right, people with time-space synesthesia can see through time—without eating spicy food, even.
Blind individuals don’t look forward to the weekend
While we have no sensory apparatus dedicated to processing temporal experience, our visual system comes close. If that’s true, then how on earth do the congenitally blind conceive of time without the benefit of visual metaphor?
You look forward to Friday, and fondly back at all the fun that was had last weekend. Those blind from birth, however, lack the visual experience to facilitate this particular time–space mapping and therefore display no such association.
However, blind individuals are able to associate past events with the left side of space and future events with the right side, just as sighted individuals do. It’s hypothesised that blind people develop a horizontal mental timeline haptically through the experience of reading Braille from left to right. [Author’s note: Braille is left to right, even for Japanese, Arabic or Hebrew texts.]
For blind people, the past might not be behind them, but it’s certainly to their left.
Moving meetings, moving people
If I asked you to move our meeting forward, would you interpret that as moving it closer or further down the timeline? (If you think this is clear-cut, you’d be surprised how many people have the opposite interpretation to you. Though I dare say interpretation also varies depending on whether you’re an optimist or pessimist dreading ritualised unproductivity. )
Research shows that people disembarking from a flight were more likely to assume the meeting would be rescheduled to a later date than those waiting for them to arrive.
It seems that the very act of moving forward in space prompts us to think of moving forward in time. This is known as the ego-moving perspective of time, where you move through time rather than it passing you by.
“Your mind is racing like a pro now
Oh my god, it doesn't mean a lot to you
One time, you were a glowing young ruffian
Oh my god, it was a million years ago”
(The National, “Racing Like a Pro”, 2007)
Pormpuraawans—residents of a remote Aboriginal community—are a curious mob in matters of time conceptualisation. For these folk, the flow of time depends on the compass needle (or the Southern Cross). The future lies to the right—provided you’re facing South. If you’re facing North—it flows the opposite way. As Einstein made plain: time is relative to your frame of reference, so it’s only fitting.
Stealing company time
“Run, rabbit, run
Dig that hole, forget the sun
When, at last, the work is done
Don't sit down, it's time to dig another one”
(Pink Floyd, “Breathe”, 1972)
Once upon a time, writes David Graeber in Bullshit Jobs, you could purchase a potter’s wares, or even the potter himself—but his time? An outlandish notion. Work was used to measure time—the boiling of an egg, the recitations of the Lord’s Prayer—but time did not measure work. That’s right, productivity was not always synonymous with the number of hours you sat on your butt, staring at a glowing rectangle and aggravating your spine.
Time to wrap this up
There you have it, time and space are inexorably linked, related not only through the laws of our universe but in the way we conceive of time.
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