As adults, we have complex, highly structured concepts of time. The way we think about time penetrates almost everything about how we live — how we organize our day-to-day schedules, how we plan for the future, how we interpret memories of our pasts, and how we construct our life stories, the narratives that help to define who we are. A theory of time provides a framework for interpreting all of our experiences. In Westernized societies, “commonsense” theories of time usually resemble Newtonian physics. We think of time as unidirectional, continuous, and universal. We think of the past as fixed and the future as unknowable. We think of time as a property of the universe that’s independent of particular events and particular observers.
Modern physics tells us that Newton’s theory, elegant as it was, was largely wrong. So, if the way that people think about time doesn’t reflect how the world just IS, then where do our mental models of time come from? How do we construct them, and why? Are we predisposed from birth to think about time the way we do, or is it a consequence of learning language, or of learning how to use tools like clocks? Do we arrive at our adult theories about time based on our own perceptual experiences of the world, or does this depend critically on what we’re told about time by other people in our culture?
My dissertation research attempts to help answer some of these questions by examining what young children think about time, how they manage to learn new words that label abstract temporal concepts, how they associate time with space, and how their reasoning about time changes while they acquire language and other symbolic systems for representing time.
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