• Mac Ling

Time & Perception

How does the way we conceptualize time affect what we choose to do with it?

"Time is a game played beautifully by children"

- Heraclitus

We take for granted that there is a direction to the way things unfold in time. Eggs break, but they don't unbreak; candles melt, but they don't unmelt; memories are of the past, never of the future; people age, but they don't unage. These asymmetries govern our lives; the distinction between forward and backward in time is a prevailing element of experiential reality," theoretical physicist Brian Greene writes in his book on spacetime, Fabric of the Cosmos. He continues on to explain that, oddly, this asymmetry is not present in the equations of the laws of time and physics that govern these actions. In other words, if you were to find a tape of a candle melting and play it in reverse, all the same things would happen, just—it would seem to us—in the opposite order (for a dramatic, thrill-a-minute illustration of this principle, you can check out the 2020 film Tenet!). Taking this time equation-symmetry as our basis, it seems to be the viewer and not the viewed that decides how to account for time.

We begin to wonder: Is the sequence of the unfolding of events as important as the events themselves? If we watch a movie about a love story in which all the scenes are presented out of order, is there less love in it? Are any of the feelings experienced by the the characters less intense (even if your feelings—watching it in frustration or surprise—might be somewhat altered in the jumble)? As we know, great storytellers over the ages have used such techniques to illuminate aspects of scenes whose importance a chronological re-telling would have failed to capture. And if this is the case, why do some societies place so much emphasis on the conventional sequence in which we complete certain phases of our lives rather than on other metrics involving the satisfaction inherent in each?

Greene's entropy-informed description above is just one of many conceptions of time, a topic that all generations and cultures seem to have both consciously attempted to examine and unconsciously been groomed to forget; the diversity in time-perception is indicated by the range of tangible behaviors that result depending on how time is treated linguistically, socially, and economically in a society. In some "multi-active" cultures, for example, the meaningfulness of an activity is prioritized over the ending of an appointment-time; in others, linear time is connoted with money measured in industrial output; in yet others, where people of certain landed classes do not work hourly for their pay, time is measured by the opportunity for leisure.

This month, I ask you to unravel how your own society treats the issue of time—what language do you use? What methods are available to measure time? In what way is time prioritized in the organization of life events, social expectations, and even blame? Can you identify where values surrounding "time" have been baked into your culture without your being consciously aware of it? Have you been taking actions that reflect values that happen to be ingrained in the system of your society, but are not individually useful (or are actively harmful) to your own fulfilment or self-judgment? Below, I introduce a few thought exercises that I hope will help you become the navigator of your path through the ever-present mist of time and the maker of your own personal clockwork.

YOUR TASK FOR THIS MONTH (...should you choose to accept it)


Often, we consider a goal and then start at the present time to write a series of steps needed to achieve that goal. This month, I ask you to do a slightly amended thought experiment: Understanding the symmetrical nature of time, let's visualize reversing the tape from the moment of your hoped-for success back until this moment. Create your own "timeline" in reverse, beginning with the ideal that you envision, and then writing down each step that inevitably happened just before it—in a complete and logical chain of events—until you come to the present moment.

Writing these cause-effect relationships in reverse may actually help your mind uncover unexpected possibilities or inevitabilities that you might not have noticed while thinking as many of us tend to do, "forwards"; additionally, each step (not only the goal) is visualized as a certain success, and so each event—instead of being thought up as a possibility—is instead put forth as a definitive stepping-stone. Then, once you have devised this reverse-engineered path, you can follow it with confidence! (If you want to get very wild, you can make a more complicated reverse-tree that branches probabilities backwards, listing ALL of the probable events that would have led to each resulting eventuality.)


For the purposes of harvest, time can be measured by farmers in terms of what is most relevant to the shape of their lives: the weather, the length of periods of sunlight, and the life cycles of their crops. In this exercise, I challenge you to decide what your version of "harvest" is—that is, what is the animating principle of what you imagine your most fruitful life to be—and then create your own measure of time (a calendar, if you will) that does not necessarily have blocks for 31 days per month and 12 months per year, but rather visual blocks (or circles, or squiggles!) that follow some sort of system of your own making that is relevant to your personal goal. Hopefully, you will end up with something visually interesting that you can track for at least the next 30 conventional calendar days, if not beyond!


"Time is the longest distance between two places." - Tennessee Williams The abstract nature of time makes it difficult to capture in an easily transmissible way through language; thus, we find that across cultures, much of the language used to describe time is actually spatial. Let's take a look a few regions: YUPNO OF PAPUA NEW GUINEA For the Yupno, the hilly terrain of Papua New Guinea serves as a landscape upon which their sense of time is writ. In this linguistic and conceptual system, uphill represents the future and downhill represents the past. Intensively place-based time systems such as these (of which there were once many) may be inherently limited in their ability to retain their linguistic meaning for migrating groups or diasporas, cognitive scientist Rafael Núñez from the University of California, San Diego posits, since the physical landscape cannot travel along with the language. SPAIN The Spaniard "is always conscious of the double truth — that of immediate reality as well as that of the poetic whole," Richard Lewis writes. In Spain and in other "multi-active" cultures like that of the Arabs, according to Lewis's theory, "time is event- or personality-related, a subjective commodity which can be manipulated, molded, stretched, or dispensed with, irrespective of what the clock says." Here, we are not dealing with productivity measured by an official clock, but rather a measurement of relationship meaning and moment-by-moment personal value that is imbued by an interaction. Lewis contrasts the example of the Spanish directly with that of the Swiss, whom we all know are famous for their costly timepieces, and as he puts it, "have made precision a national symbol."

UNITED STATES For Americans, time is often likened to a river in which a figure stands still, facing a future that rushes towards her and into the past. This can be termed a "future-oriented" society, and according to Richard Lewis, Americans view the present moment as something to "seize, parcel and package and make it work for you in the immediate future." Defining an individual's value as dollars per hour is a common practice. Perhaps not coincidentally, Americans tend to use language with monetary connotations to speak of time, such as "wasting, spending, budgeting and saving time." AYMARA PEOPLE OF THE ANDES The language of the Aymara people places a special emphasis on visual evidence, creating a grammatical distinction between an event that is witnessed (suffix -vna) and an event that is learned of (suffix -tayna). Some linguists claim that this carries over into the Aymara's perception of time, in which the river flows in the opposite direction than it does for Americans in the United States. In the case of the Aymara, they face the past, rather than the future, because the past is what they can already see. THAILAND Informed somewhat by Buddhist philosophy, time is perceived in Thailand as a cyclical entity. According to Lewis, there is a belief that decisions are not quite final but that they will be presented over and over again and need not be rushed; he cites the fascinating clashes that sometimes occur in business negotiations with those who believe in linear time: Each side misconstrues the other's hesitation or hurry as discomfort, when in fact it is a reaction to culturally ingrained judgments about time—a pause does not necessarily mean confusion in the Thai schema, whereas rushing does not indicate nervousness but is simply an outgrowth of the American time-is-money mentality. CHINA As we have seen, many cultures have defined time in terms of some movement of water, but China's famed "Heavenly Clockwork," which was one of the first known timepieces of its kind (predating the first European mechanical clock by two centuries), measured time in the actual flow of water. A 2015 poem by Stephen Cloud immortalizes this magnificent machine created by Chinese civil servant Su Sung in the year 1090:

"... Imagine a five-platform pagoda, a bronze armillary sphere, a spinning globe, bells, gongs, splashing water, creaking wheels, marching figurines. I can see it still: on the bell-and-drum floor of the belfry ninety-six jacks tolled the quarters: green jacks at dusk, red jacks at dawn. Thus did Su Sung’s wondrous art interpret the will of heaven..."

Einstein's Dreams by Alan Lightman

This rollicking, imaginative set of short stories take us through hypothetical worlds where our time (and our knowledge of it) work differently. Lightman's work is a collection of amusing, time-bending "what if"s.

Visual Timeline "Arrows of Time" by Dan Falk (Quanta Magazine)

This clean, visually appealing graphic timeline charts the developments in the conception and measurements of time as it was conceived of primarily in Western cultures.

The Fabric of the Cosmos by Brian Greene

For a scientific perspective on the theory of time and ways to conceptualize our universe, Greene's book is an excellent journey from introduction to in-depth analysis.

"How Different Cultures Understand Time" by Richard Lewis (Business Insider)

This article describes modern habits and organizing principles involving time in different countries, including Mexico, Thailand, China, Japan, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, the U.S, and more. Particularly, this article focuses on how individuals from these countries might approach formal meetings.

The Traveler by Daren Simkin

This philosophical fable masquerading as a children's book is the story of a young boy who leaves home in search of something worthy to "spend his time on," toting days, hours, minutes, and seconds that are carefully packed into a suitcase and come to their inevitable conclusion.

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