Making Sense of Deictic Time: Gesture and the Embodiment of Human Imagination


Making Sense of Deictic Time: Gesture and the Embodiment of Human Imagination

Chisholm Theatre (room 305)


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Deictic time (past, present, future), a fundamental aspect of human experience, is elusive and abstract. We cannot perceive deictic time directly through the senses in the way we perceive color, texture, or heat. In order to make sense of, and talk about, temporal experience we must construe it in a stable and tractable manner. This is achieved via cultural practices built on the recruitment of bodily-grounded mechanisms that make human imagination possible, such as conceptual mappings. This remarkable but ubiquitous phenomenon manifests itself via ordinary linguistic metaphors as in the English expressions "the week ahead looks great" (future) and "way back, in my childhood" (past). Importantly, beyond words and grammar, this phenomenon can be observed also through largely unconscious motor actions co-produced with speech — spontaneous gestures, which reveal its deep conceptual nature. But, is the human conceptualization of deictic time universal? Based on shared general features of body morphology there is a widespread egocentric pattern which places future in front of Ego and past behind it, as in the above linguistic examples. However, there are striking variations as well, which can be documented with rigorous ethnographic linguistic/behavioral observations. In this presentation I will show data from our projects conducted among the Aymara of the Andes (who exhibit a Past-in-Front-of-Ego and Future-Behind-Ego mapping), and the Yupno of the Finisterre Range of Papua New Guinea who exhibit a non-egocentric topographic mapping (Past-is-Downhill and Future-is-Uphill). Our results show that humans make sense of deictic time sharing some basic spatial universals, but that striking differences also exist regarding the types of spatial properties that are recruited for spatializing deictic time. The findings shed light on how, our universal human embodiment notwithstanding, linguistic, cultural, and environmental pressures generate and come to shape everyday abstract concepts that constitute the fundamental building blocks of human worldviews and sense-making.


  • Professor Rafael Núñez
    Professor Rafael Núñez, UC San Diego