Back to the future: South American indigenous Aymara people have mirror-image understanding of time

Andes inhabitants perceive time in reverseOne of the benefits mediation affords to participants is the opportunity to shift their perspective–to perceive other viewpoints or to see things in new ways.

For those of you who enjoy altering your perception to gain new understanding of the world around you, consider this:

According to this news release from the University of California, San Diego, the Aymara, an indigenous people residing in the Andes highlands, have a reverse understanding of time:

Contrary to what had been thought a cognitive universal among humans – a spatial metaphor for chronology, based partly on our bodies’ orientation and locomotion, that places the future ahead of oneself and the past behind – the Amerindian group locates this imaginary abstraction the other way around: with the past ahead and the future behind.

Appearing in the current issue of the journal Cognitive Science, the study is coauthored, with Berkeley linguistics professor Eve Sweetser, by Rafael Nunez, associate professor of cognitive science and director of the Embodied Cognition Laboratory at the University of California, San Diego.

“Until now, all the studied cultures and languages of the world – from European and Polynesian to Chinese, Japanese, Bantu and so on – have not only characterized time with properties of space, but also have all mapped the future as if it were in front of ego and the past in back. The Aymara case is the first documented to depart from the standard model,” said Nunez…

“These findings suggest that cognition of such everyday abstractions as time is at least partly a cultural phenomenon,” Nunez said. “That we construe time on a front-back axis, treating future and past as though they were locations ahead and behind, is strongly influenced by the way we move, by our dorsoventral morphology, by our frontal binocular vision, etc. Ultimately, had we been blob-ish amoeba-like creatures, we wouldn’t have had the means to create and bring forth these concepts.

“But the Aymara counter-example makes plain that there is room for cultural variation. With the same bodies – the same neuroanatomy, neurotransmitters and all – here we have a basic concept that is utterly different,” he said.

Why, however, is not entirely certain. One possibility, Nunez and Sweetser argue, is that the Aymara place a great deal of significance on whether an event or action has been seen or not seen by the speaker.

A “simple” unqualified statement like “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue” is not possible in Aymara – the sentence would necessarily also have to specify whether the speaker had personally witnessed this or was reporting hearsay.

In a culture that privileges a distinction between seen/unseen – and known/unknown – to such an extent as to weave “evidential” requirements inextricably into its language, it makes sense to metaphorically place the known past in front of you, in your field of view, and the unknown and unknowable future behind your back.

Intrigued? To read more about this study, click here.

(Via Boing Boing.)

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