The west is yet to come: how cultures express time spatially

If you had four pictures of a person at different ages, how would you lay them out in chronological order?

Almost every culture in the world uses space to think about time, but the visualizations vary widely. A paper in Psychological Science describes the first culture known to tie time’s march to the cardinal directions.The Pompuraawan, a remote tribe in Australia, do not have terms for spatial relationships such as “left” or “in front of.” Instead they use the directions as descriptors, such as “my south arm.” They think of time the same way, the new study found. When asked to arrange four pic­tures showing a person’s life, Pompuraawans laid the photos in a line from east to west.

Three main factors affect how people imagine time, says Stanford University psychologist Lera Boroditsky, an author of the study.

  • One influence is how the culture thinks spatially; for instance, the Pompuraawans often gesture to the sun to indicate the time of day, Boroditsky says.
  • The layout of the written word also plays a role. Israelis tend to think of time as flowing from right to left, Boroditsky concluded in a study last year—the same direction Hebrew is written.
  • Last, a language’s metaphors can have an effect. Mandarin Chinese associates “up” with the past and “down” with the future. And re­search shows Mandarin speakers often put photos in a column with the earliest at the top.

via Scientific American.