“Time is so far from us
But time is among us
Time is ahead of us
Above and below us
Standing beside us
And looking down on us.”
The Kinks sure knew what they were doing when they wrote these timeless lines. Our lives are inescapably intertwined with time. We can give time and take time. We can invest time and waste time. Things can be worth our time and our time can run out. Time can heal and time can catch up with us. Time can stand still and time can pass us by. Time clearly has us surrounded, so if we know what’s good for us, we had better surrender and try to get to know the boundless beast. But how much do we really know about time anyway? How do we even know that time exists in the first place, or estimate how much time has elapsed? After all, our bodies do not come equipped with sensors to detect time in the way they do for hearing or smell, do they?
One place we might look for an answer is in our brains, and one of the most well-known timekeepers is the circadian rhythm1. This finely-tuned internal regulator of our sleep-wake cycles is highly sensitive to sunlight, and those of us who have ever done a stint in an unfamiliar time zone can attest to how vital it can be to our health and day-to-day cognitive functioning. In addition to the circadian rhythm, beyond the suprachiasmatic nucleus of the hypothalamus, located deep in our brains and working around the clock to transduce light signals from the eye in order to keep track of those circadian rhythms 2, our brains have a number of other important timing systems. For instance, the basal ganglia and cerebellum are responsible for interval timing3. We are remarkably good at producing periodic movements at fixed intervals and attuning those movements to variations in the timing of the intervals. It is also impressive how well we are able to compare perceptual (what we see or hear) and temporal magnitudes in order to carry out complex movement sequences that require exquisite coordination between the magnitudes (think, for example, of everything that needs to happen in order to drive a car or ride a bike – where visual input and estimates of the temporal magnitude of various unfolding events guide the actions we take to control the vehicle). The intraparietal sulcus and prefrontal cortex are key brain regions that have been implicated in these magnitude estimation abilities 4. This sheds some light on our abilities to estimate time, but these are all relatively automatic processes to which we have little or no conscious access. To better understand our experience of time, we must move away from “thinking fast” and instead engage with our more reflective “slow thinking” system5.
With this in mind, an excellent place to turn is to the language we use to describe time. Have you ever noticed how we almost always use metaphorical language when talking about time6? In fact, if you think about it, we would find it rather difficult to give a good definition of time without turning to metaphor. The most common instance is metaphors of space, and this mapping between time and space is incredibly systematic and appears to have almost no exceptions across the world’s languages7,8. So, in English for instance, we refer to the past as being behind us and the future in front of us. We can talk about waiting a long time or about an important event in the future that is approaching. In these examples, we use spatial landmarks and motion terms to describe temporal events. The spatial reference frame (perspective from which we provide a description) is often also taken into account, so we might describe a deadline as approaching from a time-centric point of view, but we can ourselves be approaching a deadline if we adopt an ego-centric reference frame. Indeed, a time-centric reference frame would lead us to describe some sad event as having passed, while from a more ego-centric point of view we would say we have moved past it. Lakoff and Johnson, in their Cognitive Metaphor Theory 6, argue that the close relationship between the language we use for space and for time reflects a deeply entrenched conceptual mapping between the two cognitive domains. In other words, we cannot help but map space onto time, and vice versa, not only in our description but also in our understanding of the world around us. A strong demonstration of this comes from studies showing that people who write from left to right associate horizontal positions from left to right with before versus after or past versus future, while people who write from right to left do not show such a mapping9,10. Even in co-speech gestures, time is often reflected in spatial metaphors11,12, so for example, when describing an event that occurred in the past at the same time, English speakers are more likely to also point towards the left along a horizontal axis that extends from left to right directly in front of them.
When we’re thinking slow, our best bet for understanding time is in the language we use to describe it. For a concept so pervasive in our everyday lives it seems remarkable that our colloquial understanding of time is far less direct than we might, at first blush, ever have imagined. Nevertheless, the use of metaphorical language helps us to coax this nuanced phenomenon from its hiding place, and to illuminate all its glorious complexities. Throwing it back to the Kinks13: “All in good time.”
- Roenneberg, T., Kumar, C. J., & Merrow, M. (2007). The human circadian clock entrains to sun time. Current Biology, 17(2), R44-R45.
- Orozco-Solis, R., Aguilar-Arnal, L., Murakami, M., Peruquetti, R., Ramadori, G., Coppari, R., & Sassone-Corsi, P. (2016). The circadian clock in the ventromedial hypothalamus controls cyclic energy expenditure. Cell Metabolism, 23(3), 467-478.
- Buhusi, C. V., & Meck, W. H. (2005). What makes us tick? Functional and neural mechanisms of interval timing. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 6(10), 755-765.
- Winter, B., Marghetis, T., & Matlock, T. (2015). Of magnitudes and metaphors: Explaining cognitive interactions between space, time, and number. Cortex, 64, 209-224.
- Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. Macmillan.
- Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (1980). The metaphorical structure of the human conceptual system. Cognitive Science, 4(2), 195-208.
- Boroditsky, L., & Gaby, A. (2010). Remembrances of times East: absolute spatial representations of time in an Australian aboriginal community. Psychological Science, 21(11), 1635-1639.
- Haspelmath, M. (1997). From space to time temporal adverbials in the world’s languages. Newcastle, UK: Lincom Europa.
- Ishihara, M., Keller, P. E., Rossetti, Y., & Prinz, W. (2008). Horizontal spatial representations of time: Evidence for the STEARC effect. Cortex, 44(4), 454-461.
- Vallesi, A., Weisblatt, Y., Semenza, C., & Shaki, S. (2014). Cultural modulations of space–time compatibility effects. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 21(3), 666-669.
- Casasanto, D., & Jasmin, K. (2012). The hands of time: Temporal gestures in English speakers. Cognitive Linguistics, 23(4), 643-674.
- Cooperrider, K., & Núñez, R. (2009). Across time, across the body: Transversal temporal gestures. Gesture, 9(2), 181-206.
- Kinks, T. (2018). Time Song. On The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society. Pye Records.