Saturday, May 21, 2011

Imagine a World with No Time

If you have no words for a concept, does it "exist"? This story from Medical Express describes a tribe in the Amazon whose language has no vocabulary for time-related concepts--no yesterday, no age, no since, no longer, etc. While they are born, age, and die as all humans do, they do not talk or think about time the way most other cultures do:

For the Amondawa, time does not exist in the same way as it does for us. We can now say without doubt that there is at least one language and culture which does not have a concept of time as something that can be measured, counted, or talked about in the abstract. This doesn't mean that the Amondawa are 'people outside time', but they live in a world of events, rather than seeing events as being embedded in time.
Researchers attribute this difference in the language in part to the associated lack of numbers beyond four or five. If you don't have numbers, it's hard to quantify anything, including time.

What would it mean to think about your life, your family, your society, your activities, without thinking about the time something takes, the time your project is due, the sequence of a set of events, the numeric significance of age? What would a day be like if you didn't think of it as a day? How would you experience the company of your friends if you didn't think about time passing?

I think that psychology and neuroscience might suggest that if your native language includes words for time, you will have a hard time answering those questions. Language influence the connectivity in our brains. We think what we say, our language frames our thoughts, and vice versa. The older and more socially embedded the concept, the more fundamental it feels to us, and thus the greater the difficulty we will face if we try to step outside it or look past it and its implications.

You may never quite find a way to imagine a world with no time. But because you have language to think with, you now can at least imagine that the world might operate like that for someone. That's a step....

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