Xenology: An Introduction to the Scientific Study of Extraterrestrial Life, Intelligence, and Civilization

First Edition

© 1975-1979, 2008 Robert A. Freitas Jr. All Rights Reserved.

Robert A. Freitas Jr., Xenology: An Introduction to the Scientific Study of Extraterrestrial Life, Intelligence, and Civilization, First Edition, Xenology Research Institute, Sacramento, CA, 1979; http://www.xenology.info/Xeno.htm


22.4.2  Time, Language, and Space

All living organisms possess natural cycles and rhythms, and most sentient species have some finite sense of duration. Speaking of the subjective human attention span, the so-called "human instant" or "specious present," J.B.S. Haldane wrote in 1928:

I am now aware of a "specious present" of experience about two seconds in length at most, in which I see moving objects and hear sound sequences. I cannot, however, be directly conscious at the same time of a series of events lasting for more than about two seconds. A long life consists of about 109 specious presents or "nows."974

A few writers have suggested that the perception of self permits the perception of time, since the self can then be distinguished from the volatile environment.906 The inference in xenology is that an inability to sense self destroys the ability to sense time. Using this reasoning, genetic sentients may have no subjective time sense whatsoever.

Factors in the environment also influence the perception of subjective time.28 For example, objects fall more slowly in weak gravity fields than in strong ones, so ETs indigenous to small worlds could afford to have much slower reflexes than we.96 Taking into account the expected variation in natural surface gravity on terrestrial planets, it appears that alien reaction times may vary by half an order of magnitude on this factor alone. Another more obvious effect is the definition of the local year. A "year" for an ET may vary considerably depending upon solar and planetary parameters -- alien years may last from 10-1000 Earth-days within the human-habitable ecospheres surrounding appropriate stars.

Dr. Bernard Aaronson at the Bureau of Research in Neurology and Psychiatry in Princeton, New Jersey, has conducted some fascinating experiments in regard to subjective time that may be highly instructive for xenologists. Dr. Aaronson gave posthypnotic suggestions to human subjects to test their reactions to expanded or contracted time frames. The following suggestion is typical:

Do you know how we divide time into the three categories of past, present, and future? When I wake you, the future will be gone. There will be no future.2507

The results of changing the perception of time-blocks in people by hypnosis are tabulated in Table 22.3. Subjects with no future experienced a profound mystical sensation -- one person reported that he "found himself in a boundless, immanent present." Expanded futures cancelled all fear of death, inducing serene calmness and happiness. Elimination of the present was found to be most disturbing (subjects were inordinately de pressed and behaved almost schizophrenicly), whereas deprivation of the subjective past produced drowsiness, memory loss, speech difficulty, and a vague sense of meaninglessness. If alien psyches are so constructed as to lack past, present, or future, or advanced biotechnology has imparted an expanded future (immortality), past (biocyhernetic memory), or present (heightened awareness), these experiments may give xenologists some clue as to the resultant ET behavioral patterns.


Table 22.3 Human Responses to Expanded and Ablated Areas of Time Under Post-Hypnotic Suggestion2507
No Past Expanded Past
No Present
Expanded Present
No Future
Expanded Future
Confused Happy Immobile Happy Euphoric Happy
Disoriented Reminiscent Responselessness Fascinated by colors Semimystical No fear of death
Bored Relaxed Deathlike Exuberant Anxiety-free Anticipation
Sleepy Slow movements Lonely Time slowed Less motivated Fulfilled
Language loss Depth loss Identity loss Discouraged Calm
Withdrawn Enhanced senses Stopped growing Lots of time
Depressed Clarity of objects & sounds No ambitions More full and rich


Aaronson also used hypnosis to alter the pace at which time was perceived to pass. Persons told to experience three seconds for every one second on the clock developed a manic state and general boredom. Stopping subjective time entirely has an interesting effect: As when the present is eliminated, there is a sensation of death. According to one subject: "The world moves on, but I don’t." Admittedly these tests dealt only with humans, but the basic conclusions may yet be applicable to alien mindsets as well. The perception of time must profoundly influence the way ETs think about reality and their root psychologies.

According to the well-known Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, the structure and vocabulary of a language directly limits the perceptions and worldview of its speakers.3035,1752 Much like systems of logic, things can be said in one language that cannot be said nearly so well in another.2643,3047 For instance, Benjamin Lee Whorf once pointed out that the past-present-future tenses in English are well-suited for geometrical, linelike representations of time. In such a system, the self may be viewed as a moving point along a line of nonselves. But the linguistic expression of our sense of continuity is far from optimal. The Chichewa language (of East Africa) has two past tenses, one for events that continue to influence the present and one for events that do not. The Chichewa tribes thus are better equipped linguistically to appreciate the sense of continuity.903

Even more striking is the language of the Hopi Indians. The Hopi language has no tenses for its verbs, no reference to any concepts of time (express or implied), and no notions of enduring or lasting or of kinematic motion.1752 For the Hopi it is important only that things happen somewhere. There is no idiomatic temporal future with sequences and successions. There is no word for time in their language.903 A few writers have asserted that "certain linguistic habits were necessary prerequisites for the scientific revolution of the Renaissance,"904 implying that certain language systems -- as logic systems -- may effectively preclude a rationalistic scientific worldview capable of understanding and building a high technology. This may be so, but it is interesting to ponder the possibility of a "time-free" physics and chemistry.

Alien languages may incorporate concepts wholly unfamiliar to any human culture. As Doris and David Jonas have suggested, extraterrestrial senses may play an important role in temporal perception and its expression in language. Intelligent beings who rely most heavily, say, upon a primary sense of smell would have an extreme diffuse perception of time frames. To osmic aliens, according to the Jonases, "much of the past flows into the present and coexists with it," primarily because of the lingering character of scents. "Their thinking patterns and their language are based on different premises from ours, especially in this matter of what is past, what is present, and what is future."1000 Even their mathematics could be affected:

[Perhaps to osmic ETs] the number 1 represents a field extending from 1 to 2, and so on along the line. As a result, their mathematical calculations are expressed in symbols of probability and utilize the concept of statistical averages far more than the absolutes of our digital form of calculation.1000

Another interesting temporal-linguistic twist might be found among sentient extraterrestrials who could see polarized light. This simple physiological modification would add an entirely new dimension to their vision -- and their language. Once again the Jonases, from the viewpoint of a hypothetical xenological first contact team:

We first got a clue about this when we were trying to master some words of their language and found that they had dozens of different words for what to us was a single object -- say, one of their grass-trees. Slowly it dawned on us that a time element was an integral part of their vision. They never actually "saw" a grass-tree in the same terms as we did; it had separate existences for them as though it were a different thing at different times, determined by the angles at which the light from their suns reached it.

What we saw as a particular grass-tree they saw variously as a one-o’clock grass-tree, a five-o’clock grass-tree, or a ten-o’clock one; the different names incorporated their perception of the time element.. What it really amounted to was that for them time was fused with their perception of an object.

While their eyes actually saw objects in disparate bits and their brains coordinated these, simultaneously their brains also coordinated with the sight of an object their perception of the sun’s positions....1000

Concepts of physical space will also have a major influence on linguistic conventions. Many examples of the outré may be cited from Earth’s human cultures. The language of the inhabitants of the atoll of Truk (the Caroline Islands in the Pacific) treats open spaces without traditional dividing lines as distinct and divisible. Featureless spaces on the walls of a bowl, for instance, may have separate names, although there are far fewer terms for edges and boundaries than in Western tongues.3036 In the Hopi language, there are no terms describing interior three-dimensional spaces -- no words for room, chamber, hall, passageway, interior, cellar, crypt, attic, loft, or vault. In spite of this, the Hopi have multiroom dwellings which they use for specialized purposes such as storage, residence, grinding corn, and so forth. Still stranger is the Bolivian Quechua language, in which one speaks of the future as "behind oneself" and the past as "ahead of one." Quechuas explain that because a person can see "in the mind" what has already happened, such events must lie "in front of one." Since the future cannot yet be seen, these events necessarily must lie "behind one."2507

Xenolinguists point out the close association between human language and human body form. Extraterrestrial lifeforms will speak differently, think differently, and act and feel differently, simply because they have some other body shape and thus experience a markedly different awareness of space, position, and movement.2354 Some comments by psychologist Donald G. MacRae are worth quoting in this regard:

The human body is basically bilaterally symmetrical. This external symmetry is imperfect but dominant. The posture we regard -- and I think this universal -- as typical of the body in all societies is upright. This is to contradict experience: during most of the time we are, even in very physically active societies, as a matter of fact slouched, twisted and recumbent in sleep or rest, or crouched or seated or bent in action. Yet being upright seems a general convention of thought about being human. From the symmetry of this erectness we derive our categories of direction-up-down, left-right, before-behind, over-under, and beside. Our concepts of relations in space come not only from our binocular vision but above all from our experience of a fixed eye-level above a fixed ground. (How do birds, or arboreal creatures like gibbons see? How far can sight be said to be the same sense for such unstable observers as for us?) Certainly our ideas of dominance are all connected with the visual dominance of our erect postures. Both our categories for classifying and dealing with space manipulatively and organizationally, and our emotions about space and the values we attach to direction in space, derive directly from our body form.

For example, what is superior is up or high and what is inferior is down or low. (Low is often dirty, but high is not necessarily clean.) Right is law, morals, the holy and the strong; left is sinister, profane, weak and (often) feminine. Backward and behind are slow, hence stupid. Forward and in front are active, oriented and intelligent. Beside is confederate or paranoid: it is an ambiguous category of place. And I could continue this listing and give it an ethnography for pages. What is clear is that these aspects of space derive from our conception of the body and would not hold for an intelligent bilateral but horizontal animal, far less for a radially symmetrical one like a clever starfish, or for spherically symmetrical beings like those of the fable in Plato’s Symposium.2355


Last updated on 6 December 2008