Talking about Time

Time Lines

Where’s your future?

Where’s your past?


Let me re-phrase that.

Think of something mundane that is going to happen tomorrow – perhaps brushing your teeth in the morning. Notice where you represent that idea, in the space around or inside you. Think now of something a little further into the future – next week perhaps – and notice where that is.

Repeat for a couple of other things, perhaps your next birthday or Christmas.

Now think about the past – an event yesterday, last week, last year, earlier in your life. Notice where in the space around or inside you that you think of those things.

Imagine now a line that joins up all of those points – from your furthest past memory through the current moment and on into the future. In NLP that imaginary line is called your time line, a metaphor that is used in a great many forms of powerful personal changework. For the moment just notice where the current moment is – specifically is it inside or outside your body?

Metaphors of Time

All languages use space or position as a metaphor for time. The idea that the metaphors we use are closely bound to the way we structure our thoughts was first expressed a quarter of a century ago by Lakoff and Johnson in Metaphors We Live By. Inspired by Lakoff and Johnson the early developers of NLP began to create the time line model.

Many processes have been developed that use the metaphor of Time As A Line to change the way people think about the past, the present and the future. Metaphor is a meta-stating process (i.e. a thought about a thought) so immediately adds a level of [bliki]disassociation[/bliki], a powerful tool to allow people to think about challenging events in their lives without being swamped in feelings.

As a coach I find that talking people through an exploration of how they think about life using the metaphor of a time line to guide reflection, re-consider past events or rehearse alternative futures is a very powerful conversational intervention.

In-Time and Through-Time

Remember I asked you to pay particular attention to where you represented your sense of the current moment? Lakoff and Johnson observed that in Indo-European language-speakers there is approximately a 50-50 split between people who think of the current moment as being inside their body and people who think of the current moment as being outside their body, usually just in front of them. NLP labels these two most common representations of the passage of time as [bliki]In Time[/bliki] and [bliki]Through Time[/bliki] respectively.

A lot of changework processes use manipulation of these mental models as a way of accessing new ways of thinking. For example how good are you at future planning? If you feel that you could do better then try imagining future events in a more [bliki]Through Time[/bliki] way i.e. mapped out in front of you as if on a wallchart or planner and see what difference that makes. Many people find a positive difference from this sort of work, but nearly everyone expresses some inner tension or discomfort when they first try to think of time in a different way – these models go right to the core of our way of being in the world and change can have significant effects on the way we perceive things.

The Connection Between Language and Thought

Further work by Lakoff and Johnson, and many others in the field of cognitive linguistics, has extended the thinking – for example this study.

New research shows that the metaphor which is used could depend on the native language of the person concerned. Laura Spinney, in the Guardian article How Time Flies [via Tom Coates] reports on research by Rafael Núñez and Eve Sweetser with the Aymara people from the Chilean Andes. There’s more detail in this presentation from Vyv Evans at the University of Sussex which summarises the field and has a long list of references to follow.

The Aymara study is the first documented research finding evidence of a group of people with a reversed sense of time. When talking about long time spans the Aymara seem to have a [bliki]Through Time[/bliki] model, when talking about shorter periods (up to several generations) they seem to exhibit a reversed [bliki]In Time[/bliki] model, with the past in front and the future behind:

When they talked about very wide time spans, their gestures indicated that they conceived of it spanning from left to right, excluding themselves. But when they talked about shorter spans, several generations say, the axis was front-back, with them at point zero. The gestures of the old man and the woman discussing their grandparents confirmed that they really did think of the past as in front of them.

This particular and (so far) unique way of modelling time seems intimately associated with the Aymara language:

In 1975, Andrew Miracle and Juan de Dios Yapita Moya, both at the University of Florida, observed that q”ipüru , the Aymara word for tomorrow, combines q”ipa and uru , the word for day, to produce a literal meaning of “some day behind one’s back


Aymara marks whether the speaker saw the action happen or not: “Yesterday my mother cooked potatoes (but I did not see her do it).”

If these markers are left out, the speaker is regarded as boastful or a liar. Thirty years ago, Miracle and Yapita pointed to the often incredulous responses of Aymara to some written texts: “‘Columbus discovered America’ – was the author actually there?” In a language so reliant on the eyewitness, it is not surprising that the speaker metaphorically faces what has already been seen: the past.

From an NLP approach we might predict some consequences from this model – in particular we might speculate that the Aymara would not have a well-developed sense of future planning because the future is literally behind them – this seems to be born out by Miracle and Yapita’s observation of the “great patience” of the Aymara. (The Aymara Language and Its Social and Cultural Context)

Making Time Work For You

So how do you think about time?

What happens if you move those representations around?

Play with your timeline and see what happens…

Proactive application of technology to business

My interests include technology, personal knowledge management, social change