As a decade ends, how do you measure time?

By Michael R. Malone

As a decade ends, how do you measure time?

By Michael R. Malone
Time. We all feel its weight and pull, yet the way we perceive time is amazingly arbitrary and created by conventions that bend to age and culture.

For children waiting for Santa to arrive – but when, when will he come? – the days of December can feel like f-o-r-e-v-e-r. Yet silver-haired elders sense that time is rapidly slipping by like sand in an hourglass.

Some may lean forward, unconsciously, when talking about the future—some researchers call it the “millimeter sway.” And a tribesman in the Amazon might point backwards to indicate the rains will come in the spring.

So, as this decade ends and we enter the new “roaring twenties,” take a moment and think about how you measure time.

Caleb Everett, professor and chair of the Department of Anthropology in the University of Miami College of Arts and Sciences, is exploring time, the “millimeter sway,” the way tribes in the Amazon, lacking words for “time,” use the physical space around them to indicate its movement, and other “cool research on language and cognition that provides important insights into humanity including how people construe time” in his forthcoming book, Your Future Is Behind You.

“At some level all humans perceive the passing of time in the same way,” Everett said, “but new research on language and in cognitive science is changing our perceptions of how humans think about basic stuff.” Everett, whose last book, Numbers and the Making of Us, was named a “Ten Best Science Books of 2017” by the Smithsonian Institution, said he’s “trying to offer a quick capsule (of the research) so that people don’t have to go off and read a bunch of dense articles.”

“Whatever culture you’re most familiar with is going to seem the most natural to you, but this research causes you to reassess what is actually 'natural' to humans,” he added.

In his new work, Everett examines topics like the link between linguistics and time.

“When we talk about the past, present, and future, most people don’t realize that there are some 7,000 languages in the world and that some have as many as seven tenses – including the remote past and the near past, the remote future and so on,” he noted. “In English, we use the same past tense to talk about the Big Bang and what we ate for breakfast.

“Most people don’t realize just how arbitrary it is when we talk about time. The quantifiable units of numbers – minutes, seconds, hours, the calendar – are all arbitrary, and you could do it in many different ways.”

In the field of psychology, studies have documented for years that older participants are more likely to report that time passes quickly. 

Memory or “memory content” – the changing experiences we have – impact our sense of time and relate to the factor of age. We have the example of how a “regular” weekend with nothing planned and following the same routine passes quickly while a weekend out of town with many new experiences stretches the subjective duration.

Other studies point to “emotional regulation” as a personality trait that influences our perception of time. Persons able to regulate their emotions are less anxious and depressed, less stressed, and so experience greater satisfaction and enhanced self-esteem. These individuals experience the last 10 years of their lives to pass relatively slower than those who are stressed and anxious.

Everett suggests mathematical ratios as a possible explanation for the acceleration of time we experience as we grow older.

“The older you get the less one year is of your life, and that impacts perception,” he said. “If you’re nine going on 10, then that’s 10 percent of your life, and when you’re 66 going on 67, that’s a much smaller ratio.”

Everett grew up in part paddling through the Amazon, and his fascination with indigenous peoples and their customs is reflected in his research.

One language researchers have studied in the Amazon has no words for time or for the hours in the day. To indicate “noon,” they would point straight up to the sky.

“You have to understand the gestures, these are not just added on – they are inherent and integral to the culture,” he said. “There’s no way to ‘talk’ about time without understanding these gestures.”

In research from Bolivia and Brazil, he points to indigenous cultures that reverse our westernized notion of past and present. There, people point backwards to talk about the future and forwards to talk about the past.

“We see some of the patterns reversed in certain peoples,” he said. “The sense of how time 'moves' can itself can be moved around.”

In New Guinea, one culture is prone to point to the terrain around them to indicate the movement of time. Time flows uphill towards the future, and the past flows downhill.

"Some scholars have assumed that people always think of time in terms of the space around their bodies - as we do with the future in front,” he said. “But time there in New Guinea is not structured around the human body – it is seen metaphorically as flowing uphill. That violates expectations of how people think about time. What we’re finding from the research is that humans do things in terms of time and numbers in very different ways.”