A lingustically-inclined cognitive scientist’s take on Arrival

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.

Lessons Learned

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.

More Information

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.


CogSci 2016 Day 2 Personal Highlights

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:

  • Temporal horizons and decision-making: A big-data approach (Robert Thorstad, Phillip Wolff): We all think about the future, but for some of us, that future tends to be a few hours or days from now, and for others it’s more like months or years. These are our temporal horizons, and someone with a farther temporal horizon thinks (and talks) more about distant future events than someone with a closer temporal horizon. These researchers used over 8 million tweets to find differences in people’s temporal horizons across different states. They found that people in some states tweet more about near future events than in others – that temporal horizons vary from state to state (shown below, right panel). They then asked, if you see farther into the future (metaphorically), do you engage in more future-oriented behaviors (like saving money – either at the individual or state level; or doing fewer risky things, like smoking or driving without a seatbelt)? Indeed, the the farther the temporal horizon revealed through people in a given a state’s tweets, the more future-oriented behavior the state demonstrated on the whole (below, left panel).
    Screen Shot 2016-08-12 at 9.28.54 AM
    Then, recruited some participants for a lab experiment. The researchers then compared the temporal horizons expressed in people’s tweets with their behavior in a lab task, asking whether those who wrote about events farther in the future displayed a greater willingness to delay gratification – for example, waiting a period of time for a monetary quantity if the future quantity will be greater than taking the money today. They also compared the language in people’s tweets with their risk taking behavior in an online game. They found that the language people generated on Twitter predicted both their willingness to delay gratification (more references to the more distant future were associated with more patience for rewards) and their risk-taking behaviors in the lab (more references to the more distant future were associated with less risk taking). While the findings aren’t earth shattering – if you think and talk more about the future, you delay gratification more and take fewer risks – this big data approach using tweets, census information, and lab tasks opens up possibilities for findings that could not have arisen from any of these in isolation.
  • Extended metaphors are very persuasive (Paul Thibodeau, Peace Iyiewuare, Matias Berretta): Anecdotally, when I read an extended metaphor – especially one that an author carries throughout a paragraph, pointing out the various features that the literal concept and metaphorical idea have in common – persuades me. But this group quantitatively showed the added strength that an extended metaphor has over a reduced (or simple, one-time) or inconsistent metaphor. For example, a baseline metaphor that they used is crime is a beast (vs. crime is a virus). People are given two choices for dealing with the crime: they can increase punitive enforcement solutions (beast-consistent) or get to the root of the issue and heal the town (virus-consistent). In this baseline case, people tend to reason in metaphor consistent ways. When the metaphor is extended into the options, though (for example adding a metaphor-consistent verb like treat or enforce to the choices), the framing has an even stronger effect. When there are still metaphor-consistent responses but the verbs are now reversed – so that the virus-consistent verb (treat) is with the beast-consistent solution (be harsher on enforcement), the metaphor framing goes away. Really cool way to test the intuition that extended metaphors can be really powerful in a controlled lab setting.
  • And, I have to admit, I had a lot of fun sharing my own work and discussing it with people who stopped by my poster – Emotional implications of metaphor: Consequences of metaphor framing for mindsets about hardship [for an abridged, more visual version, with added content – see the poster]. When people face hardships like cancer or depression, we often talk about them in terms of a metaphorical battle – fighting the disease, staying strong. Particularly in the domain of cancer, there’s pushback against that dominant metaphor: does it imply that if someone doesn’t get better, they’re not a good enough fighter? Should they pursue life-prolonging treatments no matter the cost to quality of life? We found that people who read about someone’s cancer or depression in terms of a battle felt that he’d feel more guilty if he didn’t recover than those who read about it as a journey (other than the metaphor, they read the exact same information). Those who read about the journey, on the other hand, felt he’d have a better chance of making peace with his situation than those who read about the battle. When people had a chance to write more about the person’s experience, they tended to perpetuate the metaphor they had read: repeating the same words they had encountered but also expanding on them, using metaphor consistent words that hadn’t been present in the original passage. These findings show some examples of the way that metaphor can affect our emotional inferences and show us how that metaphorical language is perpetuated and expanded as people continue to communicate.
  • But the real treat of the conference was hearing Dedre Gentner’s Rumelhart Prize talk: Why we’re so smart: Analogical processing and relational representation. In the talk, Dedre offered snippets of work that she and her collaborators have been working on over the course of her productive career to better understand relational learning. Relational learning is anything involving relations – so something as simple as Mary gave Fido to John or more complex like how global warming works. Her overarching message was that relational learning and reasoning are central in higher-order cognition, but it’s not easy to acquire relational insights. In order to achieve relational learning, people must engage in a structure-mapping process, connecting like features of the two concepts. For example, when learning about electrical circuits, students might use an analogy to water flowing pipes, and would then map the similarities – the water is like the electricity, for example – to understand the relation. My favorite portion of the talk was about the relationship that language and structure-mapping have with each other: language (especially relational language) can support the structure-mapping process, which can in turn support language. The title of her talk promised we would learn about why humans are so smart, and she delivered on that promise with the claim that “Our exceptional cognitive powers stem from combining analogical ability with language.” Many studies of the human mind and behavior highlight the surprising ways that our brains fail, so it was fun to hear and think instead about the important ways that our brains don’t fail; instead, to hear about “why we’re so smart.”
  • And finally, the talk I wish I had seen because the paper is great: Reading shapes the mental timeline but not the mental number line (Benjamin Pitt, Daniel Casasanto). By having people read backwards (mirror-reading) and normally, they found that while the mental timeline was disrupted: people who read from right to left instead of the normal left to right showed an attenuated left-right mental timeline compared to those who read normally from left to right. This part replicates prior work, and they built on it by comparing the effects of these same reading conditions on people’s mental number lines. This time they found that backwards reading did not influence the mental number line in the way it had decreased people’s tendency to think of time as flowing from left to right, suggesting that while reading direction plays a role in our development of mental timelines that flow from left to right, it does not have the same influence on our mental number lines; these must instead arise from other sources.

One more day to absorb and share exciting research in cognitive science – more highlights to be posted soon!

CogSci 2016 Day 1 Personal Highlights

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:

  • Cognitive biases and social coordination in the emergence of temporal language (Tessa Verhoef, Esther Walker, Tyler Marghetis): Across languages, people use spatial language to talk about time (i.e., looking forward to a meeting, or reflecting back on the past). How does this practice come about? To investigate language evolution on a much faster time scale than occurs in the wild, this team had pairs of participants use a vertical tool (I believe the official term was bubble bar, see below). to create a communication system for time concepts like yesterday and next year. The pairs were in separate rooms, so this new communication system was their only way of communicating. Each successive pair inherited the previous pair’s system, allowing the researchers to observe the evolution of the bubble bar communication system for temporal concepts. Over the generations, participants became more accurate at guessing the term their partner was communicating (as the bubble bar language was honed), and systematic mappings between space and time emerged; that is, although each chain ended up with pretty different systems, within a single chain people tended to use the top part of the bar to indicate the same types of concepts (i.e., past or future), and used systematic motions (for example, small rapid oscillations for relatively close times like tomorrow and yesterday and larger, slower oscillations for more temporally distant concepts).

    Screen Shot 2016-08-12 at 6.27.45 AM
    The bubble bar
  • Deconstructing “tomorrow”: How children learn the semantics of time (Katharine Tillman, Tyler Marghetis, David Barner, Mahesh Srinivasan): This team had children of varying ages place time points (like yesterday and last week) on a timeline. They analyzed different features of the kids’ timelines to investigate at what age kids seem to understand three different concepts of time (or that they begin to understand these concepts in ways that adults do). The first was whether a time is in the past or future relative to now (did kids place it to the left or right of the now mark on the timeline?). The second aspect they looked at was whether kids understand sequences of different times – for example, that last week comes before (to the left on a timeline) yesterday (regardless of where those events were placed compared to now). Finally, they compared the way kids’ timelines showed remoteness – how temporally distant different events are from now – to how adults showed the same concept. Adults, for example, will place tomorrow quite close to the now mark and next year significantly farther away. They found that kids acquired an adult-like sense of remoteness much later than the first two – deictic (past vs. future) and sequence – concepts. While the latter two concepts reliably emerged in kids by 4 years old, but knowledge of remoteness wasn’t present until much later – after 7 years old. These data are an indication that while kids can pick up a lot of information about what different time words mean from the language they encounter, they may need formal education in order to really grasp that tomorrow is much closer to today than last year was.
  • Gesture reveals spatial analogies during complex relational reasoning (Kensy Cooperrider, Dedre Gentner, Susan Goldin-Meadow): After reading about positive feedback systems (i.e., an increase in A leads to an increase in B, which leads to more increase in A…) and negative feedback systems (an increase in A leads to an increase in B, which leads to a decrease in A), participants had to explain these complicated concepts. Even though the material that people read had almost no spatial language , spatial gestures were extremely common during their explanations (often occurring without any accompanying spatial language in speech). These gestures often built off each other, acting as a way to show relational information through space, and they suggest that people invoke spatial analogies in order to reason about complex relational concepts.

    Screen Shot 2016-08-12 at 6.49.08 AM.png
    Sample Gestures showing (from left to right) a factor reference, a change in a factor, a causal relation, and a whole system explanation.
  • Environmental orientation affects emotional expression identification (Stephen Flusberg, Derek Shapiro, Kevin Collister, Paul Thibodeau): Past work has shown us that we not only talk about emotions by using spatial metaphors (for example, I’m feeling down today, or your call lifted me up), but we also invoke these same aspects of space to think about emotions. In the first experiment, the researchers found that people were faster to say that a face was happy when it was oriented upwards and that it was sad when oriented downwards (both of which are considered congruent with the metaphor) than for the incongruent cases. Then, to differentiate between an egocentric (facing up or down with respect to the viewer’s body) and environmental (facing up or down with respect to the world) reference frames, people completed the same face classification task while lying on their sides. This time, they only showed the metaphor consistent effect (faster to say happy when faces were oriented up and to say sad when faces were oriented down) when the face was oriented with respect to the world – not when the orientation was with respect to the person’s own position. This talk won my surprising finding award for the day, since researchers often explain our association between emotion and vertical space as originating in our bodily experiences: we physically droop when we’re sad and we rise taller when we’re happy. That explanation isn’t consistent with what these researchers found, though, suggesting that people’s association between vertical space and emotions was critically an association involving vertical space with respect to their environment, and not their own bodies.
  • Context, but not proficiency, moderates the effects of metaphor framing: A case study in India (Paul Thibodeau, Daye Lee, Stephen Flusberg): People use metaphors they encounter to reason about complex issues. For example, when a crime problem is framed as a beast, they think that the town should take a more punitive approach to dealing with it than when that same problem is framed as a virus. What if you encounter this metaphor in English, but English isn’t your native language – does the metaphor frame influence your reasoning less than it would influence a native English speaker’s? People from India (all of whose native language was not English) read the metaphor frames embedded in contexts, and reasoned about the issues that were framed metaphorically. Overall, people reasoned in metaphor-consistent ways (i.e., saying that crime should be dealt with more punitively after it was framed as a beast than a virus). Their self-reported proficiency in English did not affect the degree to which people were influenced by the metaphor; people who were more fluent in English were not more swayed by the frames. However, the context in which they typically spoke English, did play a role: Those who reported using English mostly in informal contexts, such as with friends and family and through the media, were more influenced by the frames than those who reported using English more in formal contexts, like educational and professional settings. These experiments don’t explain why those who use English more in informal settings were more swayed by metaphorical frames than those who use the language more in formal settings, but it opens the door for some cool future research possibilities.

Check back for highlights from days 2 and 3!

The Time Keeper: Review and Reflection

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.

time keeper

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?

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!

Image from Walker, E. & Cooperrider, K. (2015). The continuity of metaphor: Evidence from temporal Gestures.
Image from Walker, E. & Cooperrider, K. (2015). The continuity of metaphor: Evidence from temporal Gestures.


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

Getting people to think about the next 10,000 years

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?

Music makes me lose control

Nautilus, you’ve done it again: an elegant post on two of my favorite topics: music and time.  Time and music are inseparable – music takes place over time, and both can be very precise and mathematical. But music also reminds us how subjective time is, which is the theme of Jonathan Berger’s post. The post weaves together connections between music and temporal perception. Here are a few highlights:

  • The tempo of music alters our behaviors – slower music encourages us to slow down and buy more drinks at a bar or spend more time in a grocery store, and familiar background music gives shoppers the impression that they spent longer in a store (though they actually spend more when novel music is played).
  • Our musical attention span is about 4 minutes, thanks to Thomas Edison’s cylinder recordings, which maxed out at 4 minutes.  Even when technology progressed to allow for longer songs, the 4-minute standard remained.
  • When we’re deeply engrossed in something perceptual (like listening to music), the prefrontal cortex, which is crucial for introspecting and high-level cognition, becomes less active than usual, while the sensory cortex becomes more active than usual. These activation patterns likely explain the feeling of flow and timelessness that can occur while listening to music.


In the second half of the post, Berger uses Schubert’s String Quintet to illustrate how “music hijacks our perception of time.” He describes the time warp going on in one section at a time, supporting each with a clip of the audio during the part of the piece he’s describing.

This was a fun “audio tour.” I found that I had to close my eyes to be able to experience the time shifts, though. This could be for a number of reasons, but one interesting possibility is that when a sound clip is embedded in a web page, the bottom right corner of the clip counts down the seconds remaining. Maybe some people can ignore the steadily decreasing numbers, but I am just so drawn to anything marking time. Why might this matter? I’d guess that a large proportion of the music-listening that people do today happens through a computer-like device (iPod, phone, computer) that exposes the listener to a ticking clock. Do we experience less of this music-induced timelessness today than in the past as a result? Or maybe songs like Time of Our Lives could be to blame?

Thanks to this song for title inspiration:

Our multiple selves

By and large, we think of ourselves as one person. But below this conscious self conceptualization, we also tend to think of ourselves as being composed of multiple selves. Just a few of my many selves include slow-but-steady runner, ex-harpist, quasi-fluent French speaker, and first born. As I write this, I’m all of those, but a better description of my current state is probably amateur blogger. Traits aside, I’m also present-me. I’m not quite the same person future-me, who I count on to get out of bed tomorrow morning despite the darkness, or even-more-future-me, who will be eligible to withdraw the interest accrued from my Roth IRA at age 59 and a half.

The latter dimension of selves – the ones that inhabit the future – is a fundamental aspect of one of the projects I’m working on right now (present-me is chipping away in hopes that a future-me will learn something valuable). After reading and thinking extensively about how patterns in language might moderate the similarity we perceive between our current and future selves, I found this awesome Atlantic article from 2008: First Person Plural. The article seamlessly pulls together wisdom from diverse lines of research in order to show us why we should care about our multiple selves.

It starts by talking about happiness. Empirical studies of what makes people happy often turn up paradoxes. For example, whether people are happier while working or while on vacation seems to be a no-brainer. But when they actually record their happiness at regular intervals during a given day, it turns out that their moods are better while at work. One difficulty in addressing the question what makes a person happy is articulating what happiness is and how it can be operationalized, but another, less apparent difficulty is defining what exactly is meant by the person. The same action or circumstance might have very different effects on the current person and some future person. If I’m in the market for a new laptop, choosing a less expensive model might bum me out on the day that I’m buying it, but it might make me really happy the next day when I have enough money left over for a printer. Or… saving money on the laptop might make me feel great in the moment that I’m saving, but disappointed in the future when I realize its glacial operating speed. We’re tricky.

The author promotes a view that although our brains do give rise to a sense of self that persists over time, we also have different selves continuously shifting in prominence. Especially when we look farther into the future, our future selves appear progressively less similar to our present selves. fMRI research by Ersner-Hershfield and colleagues has shown that similar brain areas active when we think about other people and when we think about our future selves. There is more overlap between these activity patterns than there is when we think about ourselves today and ourselves in the future, lending support to the idea that we really do perceive of our future selves as other selves.

Even if we don’t necessarily consciously think of our future selves as someone else, we all do seem to know that sometimes we have to do things now in order to restrict the influence our future selves will have over something. A college roommate of mine used to set three alarms for the morning, and made sure that one was all the way across the room – she knew that the only way to assure that her future self got out of bed and made it to class was if she’d need to physically get up to turn off an alarm. Some people disable their social media sites for a pre-specified amount of time while working under a deadline so that even if they try to procrastinate through Facebook, the site just won’t load. Even if we believe we have free will, we don’t necessarily believe that the person we are at this very moment will have free will over the person we are at some future time.


Image: http://andrewtwambley.com/wp/?p=30
Image: http://andrewtwambley.com/wp/?p=30

This idea of multiple selves can help explain the paradox of having children. Most people report that their children are a huge source of their happiness. But studies have shown that people are actually less happy while spending time with their kids than they are doing many other activities, like eating or praying. Surveys also show that people’s marital satisfaction decreases once they have kids and increases once those kids leave the house. The author claims that claims that kids make people happy and the reality that many people report less happiness when taking care of kids aren’t incompatible. Instead, the person who loves having kids can just be considered a different person than the one who dislikes actually spending time with them. (Of course, I don’t have kids, so I’m taking other people’s word for all of this).

In general, we don’t look kindly on people whose short-term selves alone control their behavior. We feel that present self should make decisions that benefit future self, such as eating well and saving money. But disregarding the short term selves in favor of benefitting the long term selves can also be dangerous. It can result in missing out on everyday experiences that can enhance life in favor of future ones (that you may never even profit from). The adage “everything in moderation” applies to the power we allocate to our many selves. Each should get a voice in our decisions, but sometimes certain voices should also trump others.

The consequences of being powerful

An Atlantic article, Being Powerful Distorts Time Perception recently caught my attention. The article discusses a few studies that induced feelings of power in a lab setting in order to observe different time-related cognitive consequences.

The first suggested that the more power people have, the more available time they perceive they have. The authors attributed the finding to an overall increased sense of control that powerful people feel, including control over time.

The next study concluded that powerful people tend to underestimate how much time something will take. This seems pretty consistent with the conclusion that people with power perceive themselves to have more time as a result of having control over time. In general, the first two studies discussed seem to suggest that perceiving yourself as powerful distorts your sense of time in a negative way. While it might be less stressful to believe that you have more time in the future, if it leads you to underestimate how long things actually take, it seems like the stress-reducing benefit could be easily reversed. In a real world situation, if an authority figure underestimates the time needed to do things, it seems likely that stressed will be increased for subordinates as well.

I think this image is so awesome. It's by Javier Jaén, from an interesting NYT article on time poverty
I think this image is so awesome. It’s by Javier Jaén, from an interesting NYT article on time poverty

But the third study discussed in the article suggests that people who perceive themselves as more powerful make better future-oriented financial decisions. In a lab setting, people who are primed to feel powerful are less likely than others to take an immediate reward if they’re told they can have a greater sum of money in the future. In other words, they’re less likely to discount future rewards in favor of those in the present. Outside the lab, the researchers found that a person’s perceived power at work actually predicts the amount he or she has in savings. The perception of power is undeniably helpful, according to these results.

So how to reconcile the findings that shine light on the detrimental effects of perceived power with those that suggest that it’s beneficial? The authors of the third study on temporal discounting suggest that people who feel powerful discount the future less because they feel an increased sense of continuity between their present and future selves. Could that same sense of continuity underlie the perception that you have more time or that future tasks will require less time? The connection is unclear to me, but as someone who’s deeply interested in our perception of time and the factors that affect it, I’d like to try to figure it out.