Inspired by PhD by haiku, vol 1: OnCirculation
For more than 17 syllables on this topic, see this chapter: How Languages Construct Time by Lera Boroditsky.
Note: This post doesn’t just contain spoilers. The whole thing is pretty much a spoiler. Read it now only if you have seen the movie, don’t plan to see the movie, or don’t mind knowing the end of the movie. Read it later if none of those previous conditions apply to you. Either way, read it at some point.
This weekend I saw Arrival. The movie finished around 9:30pm, which is about bedtime for me, but I was wired. A few times during the movie, I squeezed my husband’s hand. He passed over his sweatshirt for me to rest on my lap, assuming the squeezes were my way of telling him I was cold (they often are). I clarified, I’m just excited.
Why was I so excited? Because Arrival nailed some of the intellectual issues that make me tick.
Wikipedia has a solid overview of the plot, so mine will be brief. In the movie, aliens land in 12 different locations across the Earth. One of those locations is in the U.S., and Louise, a linguistics professor, is called to help make sense of their language so humans can communicate with the aliens (referred to as heptapods) and ask them why they’re here.
Early on, the colonel asks Louise why she has such a lengthy list of terms she needs to learn to communicate with the heptapods. The military only wants the answer to the question: “What is your purpose here?” Louise briefly points out the layers of complexities underlying such a seemingly simple question. First, it’s a question, so you have to make sure the heptapods know what a question is; that it’s a request for information. Then there’s the pronoun your, which is ambiguous in English in a way it’s not in other human languages. Your can refer to Joe alien or it can refer to the aliens collectively, an important specification that needs to be clear to effectively ask the heptapods why they’re here. Understanding the word purpose assumes an agreed-upon sense of intentionality. These are just a few of the reasons that Louise needs to be able to communicate human and Louise and many other seemingly-unrelated words before diving into the meaty why are you here? question. Lesson #1: Communication is not simple.
Eventually, Louise gets to the point where she can ask the heptapods why they’re on Earth. They write their response, which Louise translates as Offer weapon. Other teams of linguists at the other 11 locations with heptapod shells have also gotten to a similar point in their communication with the heptapods and translate the responses similarly: Use weapon. Not surprisingly, people freak out. China has declared that they’ll open fire on the shell if they don’t leave within 24 hours. Pakistan and Sudan follow suit. Nations start disconnecting from each other. Everyone is afraid that the heptapods are going to attack, and the U.S. military starts evacuating from the site.
Louise is not so ready to accept this message as a warning of attack. Maybe the weapon the heptapods were talking about what English speakers refer to as a tool (which is a really ambiguous term, accounting for so many different objects. Of course a screwdriver is a tool, a knife is a tool, a pen is a tool. But so are cars and iPhones and… language). Lesson #2: Translating is messy (this version of the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air translated many times over hillariously reminds us of this fact).
Despite the military’s disapproval, Louise takes it upon herself to clarify the heptapods’ message. Why are they here? They are here to help humanity because in 3,000 years they will need humans’ help. Louise asks how they can possibly know that they’ll need our help in 3,000 years. They know because they have an ability to perceive time in a way we don’t: they can see the future. And, they point out to Louise, so can she. It is at this point that we realize that the visions Louise has been having throughout the movie, which we assumed to have been flashbacks to her daughter’s life and death from a rare form of cancer, are actually flash-forwards. As Louise has learned the heptapods’ language, she has acquired the ability to perceive time as they do.
The heptapods’ written language is not linear, as every known human language is. It’s written simultaneously from left to right and right to left. It’s cyclical. They have come to help humanity by offering up an incredibly valuable tool — their language. Once someone knows their language, they will be able to perceive time as the heptapods do, in a new way. And that is a gift. Lesson #3: Language is a gift. Lesson #3a: It can shape the way you see the world.
As I left the movie, I looked around at the other people in the theater and tried to imagine the conversations they’d have on the way home. I imagined someone commenting, Imagine if the language you spoke and the way you wrote actually affected the way you perceive time? That would be wild.
You know what would be even more wild? If people spent all day every day thinking about and working on that very topic. If they earned government and university funding, conducted academic research experiments, talked and wrote incessantly about it, and at the end of it, they were granted a PhD. So wild. That’s my life, so I guess I’m wild — there’s a first time for everything.
Language Shapes Thought about Time
As far as we know, there are no human speakers of any language who can see the future as a result of their language’s way of talking about time. But there are other cool connections between the way different groups of people talk about time and the way we think about it. Across many languages, we tend to use features of space to talk about time, and cognitive science research shows that we tend to invoke space when we think about time as well.
In English, for example, we often talk about looking forward to the future and putting the past behind us. Beyond just a way of talking, we’re faster to think about the future when doing so involves some kind of forward component (like moving our arms or bodies forward) and faster to think about the past when it involves backward movement. Speakers of the Aymara language actually reverse this convention: since they know what happened in the past, it’s in front of them, in visible space, while the future, unknown, is behind. Their spontaneous gestures reveal that they also think about the past as ahead and future as behind. And Mandarin Chinese speakers can talk about time using vertical space. The same words that mean above and below can be combined with temporal words like month to produce the phrases last month and next month. Compared to English speakers, who don’t talk about time using vertical metaphors, Mandarin speakers have more robust vertical mental timelines.
Linguistic metaphors matter for the way speakers of a language think about time, but so does their writing direction. As left-to-right readers and writers, English speakers think of time as left-to-right. Right-to-left readers and writers, like speakers of Hebrew and Arabic, think of time as flowing from right-to-left. And Mandarin speakers with more experience with top-to-bottom text think of time even more vertically than those who speak the same language but don’t read vertically (whether Mandarin is written vertically varies from one location to another). When you read and write, you are continually experiencing the flow of time in one direction. Your eyes and hand move in a consistent direction as time unfolds, which seems to instill a consistent mental timeline. (See the list of resources at the bottom of this post for more info on all of these studies and more)
Back to Arrival
The movie was a 5/5 in my book because it was captivating. It was a 5/5 because a linguist saved the day, and because the military recognized that they needed someone with a PhD in linguistics for this crucial job. And, to boot, the linguist was a female, which is not at all far-fetched in the real world, but is not to be taken for granted in a Hollywood portrayal of an academic. As a bonus, Arrival spread the concept of my research much farther than my dissertation will, and it proved — even to me — that there are so many reasons for us to continue methodically investigating the world’s languages and their impact on cognition. Because you just never know when the heptapods will arrive.
You can also find this post published on moviepilot.com.
Bergen, B., & Chan Lau, T. (2012). Writing direction affects how people map space onto time. Frontiers in Cultural Psychology, 3(109).
Boroditsky, L., Fuhrman, O., & McCormick, K. (2010). Do English and Mandarin speakers think about time differently? Cognition, 118(1), 123–129. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.cognition.2010.09.010
Casasanto, D. (2008). Who’s afraid of the big bad Whorf? Crosslinguistic differences in temporal language and thought. Language Learning, 58(s1), 63–79.
Casasanto, D., & Jasmin, K. (2012). The hands of time: Temporal gestures in English speakers. Retrieved from http://www.degruyter.com/view/j/cog.2012.23.issue-4/cog-2012-0020/cog-2012-0020.xml
Fuhrman, O., & Boroditsky, L. (2010). Cross-Cultural Differences in Mental Representations of Time: Evidence From an Implicit Nonlinguistic Task. Cognitive Science, 34(8), 1430–1451. http://doi.org/10.1111/j.1551-6709.2010.01105.x
Fuhrman, O., McCormick, K., Chen, E., Jiang, H., Shu, D., Mao, S., & Boroditsky, L. (2011). How Linguistic and Cultural Forces Shape Conceptions of Time: English and Mandarin Time in 3D. Cognitive Science, 35(7), 1305–1328. http://doi.org/10.1111/j.1551-6709.2011.01193.x
Miles, L. K., Tan, L., Noble, G. D., Lumsden, J., & Macrae, C. N. (2011). Can a mind have two time lines? Exploring space–time mapping in Mandarin and English speakers. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 18(3), 598–604. http://doi.org/10.3758/s13423-011-0068-y
Núñez, R. E., & Sweetser, E. (2006). With the future behind them: Convergent evidence from Aymara language and gesture in the crosslinguistic comparison of spatial construals of time. Cognitive Science, 30(3), 401–450.
Ouellet, M., Santiago, J., Israeli, Z., & Gabay, S. (2010). Is the future the right time? Experimental Psychology, 57(4), 307-314.
Cool stuff is happening at CogSci 2016 (for some evidence, see yesterday’s highlights; for more evidence, keep reading). Here are some of the things I thought were especially awesome during the second day of the conference:
One more day to absorb and share exciting research in cognitive science – more highlights to be posted soon!
I stepped out of the airport Wednesday night and my glasses fogged up. Ah, what a reminder of the world that awaits outside southern California, where I’m immersed in my PhD work. I had arrived in Philadelphia for CogSci 2016 to be bombarded by fascinating new work on the mind and behavior and the clever researchers responsible for it.
With 9 simultaneous talks at any time and over 150 posters on display during each poster session, I of course only got to learn about a fraction of all that was there. Nonetheless, here are some projects that are still on my mind after day 1:
Check back for highlights from days 2 and 3!
Try to imagine a life without timekeeping.
You probably can’t. You know the month, the year, the day of the week. There is a clock on your wall or the dashboard of your car. You have a schedule, a calendar, a time for dinner or a movie.
Yet all around you, timekeeping is ignored. Birds are not late. A dog does not check its watch. Deer do not fret over passing birthdays.
Man alone measures time.
Man alone chimes the hour.
And, because of this, man alone suffers a paralyzing fear that no other creature endures.
A fear of time running out.
How do our minds make sense of such vastly complex concepts like time? It’s a perennial cognitive science question and one taken up by Mitch Albom in his novel The Time Keeper. The book is about an ancient man named Dor, the inventor of the first clock and a time keeping hobbyist. As a punishment for trying to measure time, Dor is sent to a cave for 6,000 years. While in the cave, he hears voices from people all over earth, constantly asking for more time. He experiences intense loneliness, and quickly realizes that the immortality he’s received is no gift. When he’s allowed out of the cave, he’s given an hourglass that lets him selectively slow time to a near halt and the task to teach two people what he’s learned about time.
One of these people wants too much time. This is Victor Delamonte, fourteenth richest man in the world and dying from cancer. Victor decides that he will have his body cryogenically frozen, to be rejuvenated and cured once medicine has advanced enough. Victor wants to live forever.
The other character Dor is sent to help wants too little time. Sarah Lemon is a high school senior who has been humiliated and cast off by a boy she mistakenly believed to be her boyfriend. Sarah wants to die.
Both Victor and Sarah cross paths with Dor in modern New York City in the watch shop where Dor now works. Victor decides he will be frozen before he’s officially dead to increase his chances of success, and Sarah decides she will kill herself. Moments before they follow through with their radical and opposite actions, Dor slows time to bring them together and teach them what he’s learned about time: “‘Man wants to own his existence. But no one owns time… When you are measuring time, you are not living it.'”
We treat time as a thing. My Google calendar may as well be my homepage. The rare room lacking a clock feels like a prison. We take ownership of our time when we capture it in photographs, sign contracts for work we will complete, and invest our money for the future. We talk about wasting or saving time just the same way we talk about wasting or saving food. Albom reminds us that despite our language, cultural practices, and technological innovations, despite the fact that we can measure and quantify time in amazingly precise and meticulous ways, we do not control time. As Dor was told at the beginning of his sentence in the cave, “‘The length of your days does not belong to you.'”
What is this thing we call time?
In English it sits on a line.
How do we know?
Our gestures, they show
Future in front, past behind.
But this is not true for everyone
For Mayans’, word time same as sun
Time revolves like a turn
From which we did learn
Studying time is even more fun!
Inspired by Le Guen, O. & Pool Balam, L.I. (2012). No metaphorical timeline in gesture and cognition among Yucatec Maya. Frontiers in Psychology, 3: 271. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00271
Thinking about tomorrow is hard enough for some of us. Not to mention thinking about one year from now, or, oh gosh, retirement.
There are a few explanations for why we sometimes screw over our future selves. One research-backed idea is that the more we conceptualize our future selves as someone distinct from ourselves, the less inclined we are to do things now that will help that person. It even seems possible that nuances in a language’s grammar – specifically, whether it requires a future tense to talk about events in the future – might encourage this sense of disconnect between the current and future selves. For example, in English it’s standard to say “it will rain tomorrow,” but that exact same sentiment, in other languages like German, can (and often must) be expressed without any future tense marker. Keith Chen has found that speakers of languages that do grammatically distinguish the present and future tend to save less money, are more obese, and engage in more behaviors that will probably hurt their future selves, like having risky sex and smoking (for more on this, I’ve blogged about it!).
This research on conceptualizing our future selves came to mind when I read a Nautilus piece today called Living in the Long. The author, Heather Sparks, gives readers a peek into some projects by the Long Now Foundation. The name intrigued me, so I checked them out. Here’s sentence that greets the site’s visitors: “The Long Now Foundation was established in 01996 to foster long-term thinking and responsibility in the framework of the next 10,000 years. Read more…” Don’t mind if I do, Long Now. That’s a hefty goal.
There are lots of cool things about Long Now that I won’t touch on in this post, but one thing that really left an impression on me is its perfect name. By and large, research on why people don’t do enough for their future selves is that those future people are not here now. If I want to spend money on a new computer right now or I want to call in sick even though I’m healthy right now, these desires might outweigh the quiet voice coming from a future self who really seems to be a different person than I am today anyway. The name Long Now encourages us to think of the long-term consequences of our actions not as events in the future, but events that are now – we just need to tweak our definition of now.
What would happen if we got rid of the word future? I don’t think everyone everywhere would just stop polluting, squandering money, or doing drugs. But if it encouraged every one of us to shift our idea of the future just a little closer to right now, could all these micro-shifts add up to some world-changing behaviors?