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How We Make Sense of Time

scientificamerican.com

Past and future

  • When English speakers use hand gestures to talk about the past and the future, they thrust a hand over the shoulder for the past and put a hand forward to indicate the future. English speakers also talk of the past as "leaving behind" and the future as "looking forward."...

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Humans are different from animals in that we don't sense time only as passing. We dice time into units or think of time to go beyond our lifespan, such as millennia. We rely on time concepts that allow us to make plans, follow recipes, and discuss possible futures.

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Recent research suggests that across all cultures, the concept of time depends on metaphor, known as a conceptual metaphor. We build our understanding of duration and sequences of events out of familiar spatial ideas such as size, movement, and location.

But the "tim...

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Time is difficult to explain, yet we deal with it every day. All people talk of time as "motion on a space," and think of time as linear.

  • Durations are talked about using size ("a short weekend").
  • The passage of time is treated as a movement. ("the week flew by").

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People of all cultures lean on spatial concepts for understanding time, but exactly which spatial metaphors they use can vary.

  • The English may speak of "a long time ago," while the Aymara from the Andes refers to "a lot of time in front."
  • The ...

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The parts of the brain used for thinking about space are also used for thinking about time.

  • Studies reveal that people with damage to space-related brain areas also have trouble thinking about time.
  • In English and many European languages, we often think of past events to ...

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Time as space metaphor shows up in our language and gestures, but also in depictions of external sequences of events.

  • Histories are laid out on timelines.
  • The human evolution is shown creature by creature, proceeding rightward.
  • The calendar shows the days arranged f...

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The concept of time reveals the human's capacity for abstract thought. But time is not the only abstract domain, nor the only one we understand through metaphor. Spatial metaphors are very common, structuring how we think about kinship, politics, and power. ("She has the...

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