Aboriginal time runs east to west

Sun’s trajectory may channel time’s flow for one remote group

Time rises in the east and sets in the west in a remote part of Australia. Aborigines living there assume that time moves westward, apparently in accord with the sun’s daily arc across the sky, say Stanford University psychologist Lera Boroditsky and linguist Alice Gaby of the University of California, Berkeley.

Unlike any other group studied to date, these hardy foragers think about the day after tomorrow as two days to the west, the olden days as times far to the east, and the progression of a person’s life from infancy to old age as running from east to west, Boroditsky and Gaby report in an upcoming Psychological Science.

Grounding time in absolute directions makes it imperative for these people, called Pormpuraawans, to know which way they’re facing at all times. For them, time flows from left to right when facing south, from right to left when facing north, toward the body when facing east and away from the body when facing west.

Pormpuraawans rarely use terms for right and left and instead refer to absolute directions, making statements such as “Move your cup over to the north-northwest a little bit.”

Culture powerfully influences how people conceive of time, in Boroditsky’s view. “Pormpuraawans think about time in ways that other groups cannot, because those groups lack the necessary spatial knowledge,” she says.

Previous studies have indicated that people use their bodies as a reference to lay out time. In the United States, time is generally thought of as running from left to right. Other populations arrange time from right to left, back to front, or front to back.

“This new finding is of great significance since cognitive scientists have assumed that time representations must be body-based,” remarks psychologist Asifa Majid of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, the Netherlands.

Cultural differences in thinking about spatial orientation shape time representations, proposes psychologist Daniel Haun, also of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics. In 2009, Haun reported that Namibian hunter-gatherers remember dance steps and other body movements according to absolute directions. Time perception has yet to be studied in this group.

Some evidence suggests that an innate tendency to navigate by consulting external landmarks and absolute directions gets transformed into a body-centered viewpoint in certain cultures (SN: 2/10/07, p. 89).

Boroditsky and Gaby studied 14 Pormpuraawans and 14 Stanford students. Each group contained seven men and seven women. Aborigines ranged in age from the late 40s to the mid 70s.

In one task, participants examined six to 12 sets of cards. Each four-card set depicted a progression over time, such as a man at different ages. On each trial, participants received a shuffled deck and were asked to lay the cards out in the correct order.

In a second task, an experimenter placed a marker on the ground and asked volunteers to denote time periods with their own markers. If the experimenter’s stone represented today, volunteers indicated spots for yesterday and tomorrow. In other trials, volunteers arranged markers for morning, noon and evening, and for olden days, nowadays and far in the future.

Halfway through each task, each participant switched his or her sitting position to face in a different direction.

U.S. students always portrayed time as moving from left to right. Most Pormpuraawans depicted time as moving from east to west, so time’s flow systematically shifted course as the direction they faced changed.

The few body-based responses among Aborigines may reflect increasing exposure to television and other facets of Western life, as well as unfamiliarity with arranging objects in sequences, Boroditsky suggests.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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