SciAm looks this way and that at the way our minds work, trying to find out which way the future lies:
The Pompuraawan, a remote tribe in Australia, do not have terms for spatial relationships such as “left” or “in front of.” Instead they use the directions as descriptors, such as “my south arm.” They think of time the same way, the new study found. When asked to arrange four pictures showing a person’s life, Pompuraawans laid the photos in a line from east to west.
Three main factors affect how people imagine time, says Stanford University psychologist Lera Boroditsky, an author of the [Psychological Science] study. One influence is how the culture thinks spatially; for instance, the Pompuraawans often gesture to the sun to indicate the time of day, Boroditsky says.
The layout of the written word also plays a role. Israelis tend to think of time as flowing from right to left, Boroditsky concluded in a study last year—the same direction Hebrew is written.
Last, a language’s metaphors can have an effect. Mandarin Chinese associates “up” with the past and “down” with the future. And research shows Mandarin speakers often put photos in a column with the earliest at the top.