For cognitive scientist Lera Boroditsky, the fact the human brain can perceive other people’s odd collection of noises as things called “words,” which somehow possess meaning, is baffling in its own right.
But according to Boroditsky’s research, things can get far weirder than that.
A professor at the University of California, San Diego, Boroditsky recently spoke at the TEDWomen conference in New Orleans. Her talk addressed the many ways humans can perceive the world based on how their given language interprets it.
The differences shown in her research are startling, ranging from varied perception of color, time, and size, to larger concepts like gender, intentions, and blame.
Here are some of the most fascinating findings from her work.
Time can flow in all different directions.
Consider the Kukutai, a tribe of aboriginal Australians who orient themselves and other objects in the world based on cardinal directions, such as north or south — not relative directions of up, down, left, or right, which are generally based on the body.
As a result, the Kukutai perceive time not as a left-to-right movement, as much of the world does, but as a west-east one. This means that if a person is facing north, time passes from left to right. But if they turn 180 degrees, to face south, now time passes from right to left.
What starts as a linguistic difference, Boroditsky says, quickly becomes a cognitive difference once a person tries to map their language system onto the physical world.
Inanimate objects take on human descriptions of gender.
In English, words carry no gender. But in other languages, like German and Spanish, words can be masculine or feminine.