Biorelativity and the Cross-Cultural Concept of Time

“For what is time? Who is able so much as in thought to comprehend it, so as to express himself concerning it? And yet what in our usual discourse do we more familiarly and knowingly make mention of than time?”- Saint Augustine [i]

It could be argued that time is among the most widely used and least understood concepts across all human groups. It is something everyone, everywhere is aware of, and uses to structure their daily lives, though few of us understand what it actually is and how it works. We exist as slaves to its unstoppable and outwardly persistent advance, while also experiencing variable rates of its passage, which is largely dictated by our chronological age, culture, and level of contentment with what we are doing at any given time.

For instance, time seems to pass almost instantaneously while we are asleep or having conscious fun, but it can slog on assiduously when we are bored or brokenhearted.[ii] [iii] This dichotomy ardently indicates that the passage of time — as well as its tenacious forward momentum — is simply a product of our biological senses, imposing subjective rates of passage upon changes taking place in the physical world around us.

Despite time’s ambiguity as both an abstract concept and physical component of the universe, it is important for us to understand it for several reasons. Not least among these is that our perception of time, and the words we use to describe it, can affect our general health and well-being. For example, a recent study that investigated the variation among linguistic groups with regard to the way they grammatically associated the present and future, found that behaviors with a future-orientation tend to be associated with a better and more successful life than those behaviors that are not.[iv]

More specifically, individuals within cultures, whose language forces them to grammatically dictate future events, also have a tendency to save more money, practice safer sex, smoke less, and maintain a healthier diet, among other positive outcomes.[v] This indicates that time and our perception of it are important parts of our overall health, safety, and financial well-being.

Cross-Cultural Chronology

Numerous cultures throughout the world possess a somewhat restricted conceptualization of time, particularly regarding what may transpire in the future. For example, Native Americans of the Hopi Nation in the southwestern United States have very words that make reference to time. In fact, the closest future-specific words in their language are “sooner” and “later.” This aspect of their limited lexis is generally attributed to a lack of verb tenses, which has the effect of curbing temporal cognizance. Given that most verbs describe actions that take place over time, with their tense changing in response to the time an action took place, is, or will be carried out in the past, present, or future.[vi]

The Pirahã tribe of Brazil also has a relatively loose relationship with time. This relationship, like that of the Hopi, is associated mostly with the linguistic attributes of this cultural group. More specifically, the language of the Pirahã consists primarily of hums and whistles, and contains no words that make explicit reference to time.[vii] As a somewhat postmodern, ethnoscience interpretation of their perceived reality, this signifies that the passage of time and the way events are structured over the short and long-term, are not an important part of their daily lives.

The Pirahã people are unique in this regard, as well as for the fact that they have no descriptive words, they make no use of numbers or the subordinate clause, and they extend their kinship history back only two generations.[viii] Furthermore, the Pirahã do not have any origin myths or intricate verbal accounts of past events, and they make no reference to their ancestors, which is extremely uncommon among human groups.

These unique cultural characteristics are thought to be related to their general lack of broad-based temporal perception. Instead of talking about what has already passed or what is yet to come, they put emphasis on what happens “now,” by living in every moment and experiencing it for all it is worth, because once it is over, it is over. [ix]

As anthropologists, we have long considered this lack of temporal terminology in the context of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, or what is also known as Linguistic Relativity, for its perceived parallels to Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity.[x] This concept was developed primarily by Benjamin Lee Whorf during the mid-20th century,[xi] when he began to advocate that our language largely determines our thoughts and actions, and that our culture-specific lexicon can dictate our way of perceiving, analyzing, and behaving in society and in the environment around us.[xii] Although anthropologists largely abandoned this idea decades ago — at least in the strict deterministic sense — it can still inform our understanding of the cross-cultural concept of time to some extent.

For instance, a 2001 paper by Lera Boroditsky at Stanford University, titled Does language shape thought?: Mandarin and English speakers’ conceptions of time, investigated the extent to which the language we speak affects how we think about the world.[xiii] Boroditsky’s research showed that English and Mandarin speakers talk about time in different ways, which relates to how members of these distinct cultural and linguistic groups perceive the passage of time. The experimental and observational results of this broad-based study suggest language is a vital factor in shaping patterns of thought, particularly with regard to how individuals and groups conceptualize time. However, Boroditsky also concluded that language was not a strict determinant of how we think and act, at least in the causal Whorfian sense.[xiv]

Despite an overall lack of linguistic causality, it certainly makes sense that the words available to us play some part in influencing the way we perceive the world around us. However, while language can influence our thoughts and behaviors to some extent, words represent only a small part of the multitude of ways we are able to understand the complexities of life and communicate about them. For instance, we are capable of expressing ideas through visual art, which can be difficult to describe using verbal or written speech. The language of mathematics also provides a deeper understanding of, and way of communicating about, aspects of space and time that exist beyond the limited number of words available to us in any language. Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, the words used in any linguistic group are a product of human cognition and perception, as much as they are a determining factor of them.

Time In The Mind’s Eye

St. Augustine is credited with being the first person to deeply contemplate our complex relationship with time, having discussed its intrinsic nature as early as the 4th century AD.[xv] Considering its many intricacies, Augustine was most interested in understanding how humans perceive observable experiences, and how we can quantify the present using the concept of now, given that it has no actual duration. He pondered what is actually being measured when we enumerate time, and how we gauge something that is durationless (such as the present), against something else that is also durationless (such as the past).

In other words, when someone says an event took a long time, how can they measure this thing that cannot be tangibly amassed? In this way, we infer time simply from relationships among different events, as an arbitrary thing measured in relation to other arbitrary things.

In essence, St. Augustine believed time, and the ways in which we perceive the passage and duration of events, are associated only with the mind. He postulated that our memory is what helps us quantify time, as it designates the more recognizable beginning and end of events in such a way that we are able to impose a subjective sense of finite duration upon them.[xvi] And impressively, Augustine’s early views of how our memories and minds help us enumerate the fleeting present are still widely held today, more than 1,600 years after his initial temporal musings.

St. Augustine’s focus on the mind as a quantifier of time certainly makes sense in the context of how we conceptualize its passage throughout life, and in association with the perceived duration of specific events. For example, differences in how we remember time passing are apparent in thinking back on different periods of life, and in the way that it seems to pass more quickly as we grow older. It is also palpable when hanging out with young children for any amount of time, as they perceive time, both in a moment-by-moment and long-term capacity, very differently than an aged adult, who experiences a continual thinning out of time throughout life.[xvii]

These aspects of our differential perception of time, and how our memories and cognition shape its arbitrarily derived duration, extend to other cerebrally driven organisms as well, which suggests a biological form of temporal relativity that is woven into the physical fabric of universal spacetime. For instance, our perception of the rate of activity among hummingbirds, ants, barn swallows, elephants, sloths, etc., is an important reminder of just how much the perception of time is in the mind’s eye, while also being highly integrated with the size, age, metabolic rate, predator/prey status, and selective fitness of any organism.[xviii]

There is also no reason to assume other organisms perceive time any faster or slower than us humans, despite their divergent rate of activity relative to our anthropocentric speed of life. Rather, a hummingbird likely perceives time at the same relative speed of life, but simply sees us and most other organisms moving quite slowly by comparison. Fast-paced animals such as birds and flies experience each passing moment in slow motion relative to our reference frame, but at an adaptively adjusted normal speed that has favored their survival, as determined by countless instances of subsistence and predator avoidance over their long evolutionary history.[xix]

Variability in temporal acuity within and among animals is perhaps best described as Biorelativity. As it too is analogous to Einstein’s Special Relativity, but among living organisms that perceive events at variable rates relative to other living creatures, with divergent speeds of cognition and biometric characteristics. Unfortunately, however, a number of challenges currently limit our ability to research the speed at which living organisms cognitively perceive the passage of time, including the vexing question of how to quantify the duration of now. In spite of these challenges, as we continue to peel back the layers of opaque complexity that circumscribe time — in the physical, biological, cerebral and cognitive sense — we draw nearer to a more holistic understanding of that which is so familiar, yet still so unknown.

In its simplest form, among human and non-human animals alike, time can be thought of as the quantification of sequential events relative to whomever or whatever is doing the gauging.[xx] And if no change occurs, then there can be no time. If the sun always stayed in the same position in the sky, the seasons never changed, no one was ever born, died, blinked or waved, then there would be no way to measure time, as there would be nothing for it to be relative to. However, without any change, matter could never take on new forms, and there would never be anyone to blink, wave, or die. So naturally, as we exist now, so does time, and so do the changes that have, are, and will take place across the whole of block time, as our consciousness continues to catalog each state giving rise to the next, in perpetuity, for the duration of life’s time.

[i] Augustine, S. (1876) The confessions (Book 11, Chapter 14) Clark.

[ii] Droit‐Volet, S., Brunot, S., & Niedenthal, P. (2004). BRIEF REPORT Perception of the duration of emotional events. Cognition and Emotion, 18(6), 849–858.

[iii] Gable, P. A., & Poole, B. D. (2012). Time flies when you’re having approach-motivated fun: Effects of motivational intensity on time perception. Psychological science, 23(8), 879–886.

[iv] Chen, M. K. (2013) The effect of language on economic behavior: Evidence from savings rates, health behaviors, and retirement assets. The American Economic Review, 103(2), 690–731.

[v] Chen, M. K. (2013) The effect of language on economic behavior: Evidence from savings rates, health behaviors, and retirement assets. The American Economic Review, 103(2), 690–731.

[vi] Whorf, B. & Carroll, J. B. (1956) Language, thought, and reality: Selected writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf. MIT Press.

[vii] Frank, M. C., Everett, D. L., Fedorenko, E., & Gibson, E. (2008) Number as a cognitive technology: Evidence from Pirahã language and cognition. Cognition, 108(3), 819–824.

[viii] Frank, M. C., Everett, D. L., Fedorenko, E., & Gibson, E. (2008) Number as a cognitive technology: Evidence from Pirahã language and cognition. Cognition, 108(3), 819–824.

[ix] Corballis, M. C., & Suddendorf, T. (2007) 2: Memory, Time and Language. What makes us human? 17, pp. 29.

[x] Heynick, F. (1983) From Einstein to Whorf: space, time, matter, and reference frames in physical and linguistic relativity. Semiotica, 45(1–2), 35–64.

[xi] Whorf, B. & Carroll, J. B. (1956) Language, thought, and reality: Selected writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf. MIT Press.

[xii] Kay, P., & Kempton, W. (1984) What is the Sapir‐Whorf hypothesis?. American Anthropologist, 86(1), 65–79.

[xiii] Boroditsky, L. (2001) Does language shape thought?: Mandarin and English speakers’ conceptions of time. Cognitive psychology, 43(1), 1–22.

[xiv] Boroditsky, L. (2001) Does language shape thought?: Mandarin and English speakers’ conceptions of time. Cognitive psychology, 43(1), 1–22.

[xv] Levin, I., & Zakay, D. (Eds.). (1989) Time and human cognition: A life-span perspective. Elsevier.

[xvi] Augustine, S. (1876) The confessions (Chapter XXVII). Clark.

[xvii] Bruss, F. T., & Rüschendorf, L. (2010) On the perception of time. Gerontology, 56(4), 361–370.

[xviii] Gonzalez-Bellido, P. T., Fabian, S. T., & Nordström, K. (2016). Target detection in insects: optical, neural and behavioral optimizations. Current opinion in neurobiology, 41, 122–128.

[xix] Galloway, R. (2017 September 17) Why is it so hard to swat a fly? BBC News Science and Environment. Retrieved May 18, 2018 from: http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-41284065

[xx] Øhrstrøm, P., & Hasle, P. F. (1995) Temporal logic: from ancient ideas to artificial intelligence (Vol. 57). Springer Science & Business Media.

Professor of biological anthropology. Researching hominin evolutionary anatomy, biomedicine, archaeology, astrobiology, & the physics & human perception of time

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