Friday, November 4, 2011

The Time Question

This week a student in my psychology class asked, "Dr. Giobbi, is time travel possible?" My answer is "yes, but when it happens we call it psychosis."

If there is one, fundamental, issue that alienates us from the majority of thinkers on psychology today it is this: we begin from the position that language & grammar shapes thought. This is not to say that thought does not exist without language, but that language & grammar is the jig or mold for how & what we think. In this consideration, at the very least, the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is the starting point for all contemplation. In the words of Martin Heidegger, "we don't do grammar, grammar does us."

Maurice Merleau-Ponty's Phenomenology of Perception and Suzanne Guerlac's text on Henri Bergson, Thinking in Time are excellent places to start, as are the Buddhist and Vedic traditions.

"In Aymara, a language spoken in the Andes, the past is said to be in front and the future behind. And the Aymara speakers’ body language matches their way of talking: in 2006 Raphael Núñez of U.C.S.D. and Eve Sweetser of U.C. Berkeley found that Aymara gesture in front of them when talking about the past and behind them when discussing the future." 

If one considers that the memory/past-tense, fantassy/future-tense is a linguistic phenoemenon, we come to understand how, since the end of the premodern, time perception has been established by grammar.

The Gestalt psychologists, including Rudolph Arnheim , have written a great deal on all matters of perception, unfortunately only some trivial anectdotes of visual perception are kept alive by textbooks in psychology. A remarkable book on perception, by Arnheim, is The Power of Center which could be read as an essay on time, framing & defining the now (center) in past & future.

What do we mean by  t  ?

In addition to current neuroscientific investigations of the phenomenon of time are the cultural studies in experiencing time. Quite possibly one of the best explorations of time travel is Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut.

"The Kuuk Thaayorre, however, did not routinely arrange the cards from left to right or right to left. They arranged them from east to west. That is, when they were seated facing south, the cards went left to right. When they faced north, the cards went from right to left. When they faced east, the cards came toward the body, and so on. We never told anyone which direction they were facing—the Kuuk Thaayorre knew that already and spontaneously used this spatial orientation to construct their representations of time."          -How Language Shapes Thought, Scientific America 

Finally, for those who truly love to read, there is Marcel Proust's six-voume In Search of Time Lost.

This short paper is nice introduction to how time is experienced by different cultures (contexts)