Language Shapes How the Brain Perceives Time

Summary: A new study reports bilingual people think about time differently depending on the language context they are estimating event duration.

Source: Lancaster University.

Language has such a powerful effect, it can influence the way in which we experience time, according to a new study.

Professor Panos Athanasopoulos, a linguist from Lancaster University and Professor Emanuel Bylund, a linguist from Stellenbosch University and Stockholm University, have discovered that people who speak two languages fluently think about time differently depending on the language context in which they are estimating the duration of events.

The finding, published in the ‘Journal of Experimental Psychology: General’, reports the first evidence of cognitive flexibility in people who speak two languages.

Bilinguals go back and forth between their languages rapidly and, often, unconsciously — a phenomenon called code-switching.

But different languages also embody different worldviews, different ways of organizing the world around us. And time is a case in point. For example, Swedish and English speakers prefer to mark the duration of events by referring to physical distances, e.g. a short break, a long wedding, etc. The passage of time is perceived as distance travelled.

But Greek and Spanish speakers tend to mark time by referring to physical quantities, e.g. a small break, a big wedding. The passage of time is perceived as growing volume.

The study found that bilinguals seemed to flexibly utilize both ways of marking duration, depending on the language context. This alters how they experience the passage of time.

In the study, Professor Bylund and Professor Athanasopoulos asked Spanish-Swedish bilinguals to estimate how much time had passed while watching either a line growing across a screen or a container being filled.

At the same time, participants were prompted with either the word ‘duración’ (the Spanish word for duration) or ‘tid’ (the Swedish word for duration).

Image shows clocks.

The results were clear-cut.

When watching containers filling up and prompted by the Spanish prompt word, bilinguals based their time estimates of how full the containers were, perceiving time as volume. They were unaffected by the lines growing on screens.

Conversely, when given the Swedish prompt word, bilinguals suddenly switched their behaviour, with their time estimates becoming influenced by the distance the lines had travelled, but not by how much the containers had filled.

“By learning a new language, you suddenly become attuned to perceptual dimensions that you weren’t aware of before,” says Professor Athanasopoulos. “The fact that bilinguals go between these different ways of estimating time effortlessly and unconsciously fits in with a growing body of evidence demonstrating the ease with which language can creep into our most basic senses, including our emotions, our visual perception, and now it turns out, our sense of time.

“But it also shows that bilinguals are more flexible thinkers, and there is evidence to suggest that mentally going back and forth between different languages on a daily basis confers advantages on the ability to learn and multi-task, and even long term benefits for mental well-being.”

ABOUT THIS NEUROSCIENCE RESEARCH ARTICLE

Source: Anne Rothwell – Lancaster University
Image Source: NeuroscienceNews.com image is adapted from the Lancaster University news release.
Original Research: Abstract for “The Whorfian Time Warp: Representing Duration Through the Language Hourglass” by Bylund, Emanuel and Athanasopoulos, Panos in Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. Published online April 27 2017 doi:10.1037/xge0000314

Lancaster University “Language Shapes How the Brain Perceives Time.” NeuroscienceNews. NeuroscienceNews, 2 May 2017.
<http://neurosciencenews.com/brain-time-language-6562/&gt;.

Abstract

The Whorfian Time Warp: Representing Duration Through the Language Hourglass

How do humans construct their mental representations of the passage of time? The universalist account claims that abstract concepts like time are universal across humans. In contrast, the linguistic relativity hypothesis holds that speakers of different languages represent duration differently. The precise impact of language on duration representation is, however, unknown. Here, we show that language can have a powerful role in transforming humans’ psychophysical experience of time. Contrary to the universalist account, we found language-specific interference in a duration reproduction task, where stimulus duration conflicted with its physical growth. When reproducing duration, Swedish speakers were misled by stimulus length, and Spanish speakers were misled by stimulus size/quantity.

These patterns conform to preferred expressions of duration magnitude in these languages (Swedish: long/short time; Spanish: much/small time). Critically, Spanish-Swedish bilinguals performing the task in both languages showed different interference depending on language context. Such shifting behavior within the same individual reveals hitherto undocumented levels of flexibility in time representation.

Finally, contrary to the linguistic relativity hypothesis, language interference was confined to difficult discriminations (i.e., when stimuli varied only subtly in duration and growth), and was eliminated when linguistic cues were removed from the task. These results reveal the malleable nature of human time representation as part of a highly adaptive information processing system.

“The Whorfian Time Warp: Representing Duration Through the Language Hourglass” by Bylund, Emanuel and Athanasopoulos, Panos in Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. Published online April 27 2017 doi:10.1037/xge0000314

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