Why the future might not be where you think it is

Article by Ruth Ogden: “Imagine the future. Where is it for you? Do you see yourself striding towards it? Perhaps it’s behind you. Maybe it’s even above you.

And what about the past? Do you imagine looking over your shoulder to see it?

How you answer these questions will depend on who you are and where you come from. The way we picture the future is influenced by the culture we grow up in and the languages we are exposed to.

For many people who grew up in the UK, the US and much of Europe, the future is in front of them, and the past is behind them. People in these cultures typically perceive time as linear. They see themselves as continually moving towards the future because they cannot go back to the past.

In some other cultures, however, the location of the past and the future are inverted. The Aymara, a South American Indigenous group of people living in the Andes, conceptualise the future as behind them and the past in front of them.

Scientists discovered this by studying the gestures of the Aymara people during discussions of topics such as ancestors and traditions. The researchers noticed that when Aymara spoke about their ancestors, they were likely to gesture in front of themselves, indicating that the past was in front. However, when they were asked about a future event, their gesture seemed to indicate that the future was perceived as behind.

Analysis of how people write, speak and gesture about time suggests that the Aymara are not alone. Speakers of Darij, an Arabic dialect spoken in Morocco, also appear to imagine the past as in front and the future behind. As do some Vietnamese speakers.

The future doesn’t always have to be behind or in front of us. There is evidence that some Mandarin speakers represent the future as down and the past as up. These differences suggest that there is no universal location for the past, present and future. Instead, people construct these representations based on their upbringing and surroundings.

Culture doesn’t just influence where we see the position of the future. It also influences how we see ourselves getting there…(More)”.