Seven little lessons to rediscover our everyday life.
Seven days for the Creation… of a new perspective.


The well-known detail: It’s dawn. Same as every morning, the alarm goes off at 7.30: while we were asleep, time continued to go by. Another day is gone and now we have to wake up and face the future that is waiting for us.

The background: When we think about the passing of time, in our mind we picture a kind of road or ribbon unravelling through a figurative landscape. The future is in front of us and the past behind us. Everything is in constant motion: we move forward on the time line (“we’re getting closer to the end of the year”), but the flow is actually continuous and so the landscape is inevitably sliding towards us as well (“The end of the year’s coming”).
Whether the observer moves through the landscape or the landscape moves towards them, in both cases we always use spatial metaphors when we talk about time. But we would be wrong to believe these metaphors are the only possible ones: anthropologists and linguists who study different cultures have come across temporal models which are radically different from ours.
For many African cultures, for example, time is related to events. Therefore, it only passes if something is happening:

Europeans make mistakes when they think that people in traditional African societies are “wasting time” when sitting idly under a tree without activities. When Africans are not doing anything, they produce no happenings, no markings of rhythm, no ‘time’. […] When the time concept is event-related, it means that no event is no time. There is nothing to ‘waste’ and nothing to ‘save’. […] One logical result is that the taxi-browse (“the bus operating in the bush”) will leave, not at a fixed moment of the day, but when it is full, when it has enough passengers to pay for the fee, so that it can make the trip. Similarly, a meeting will start “when people (most of them) have come,” not at a point fixed beforehand on an abstract clock. It is the event, “it is full” or “people have come,” that triggers action, not the moment according to a measurable time standard.(1)

Also the idea that the future is in front of us and the past behind us is not universal.
For the Malagasy it is exactly the opposite: the future is behind us, and the past is ahead of us. The observer doesn’t move and time reaches them from behind. Their most common New Year’s greeting is arahaba fa tratry ny taona (“congratulations on being caught up by the new year”).
In this model, the past is ahead because it is known, and therefore visible; the future, on the contrary, must necessarily be behind us, because nobody can see it.

We can find a similar concept in the Aymara language, spoken in the Andean Highlands (Bolivia, Peru and Chile). In this language, they use the word nayra, a term indicating what stands before, when talking about the past. Similarly the world for ‘back’, qhipa, also indicates the future. This concept partially derives

from the strong emphasis Aymara puts on visual perception as a source of knowledge. The Aymara language precisely distinguishes the source of knowledge of any reported information by grammatically imposing a distinction between personal and nonpersonal knowledge and by marking them with verbal inflection or syntactic structures. […] So, in Aymara, if a speaker says “Yesterday, my mother cooked potatoes,” he or she will have to indicate whether the source of knowledge is personal or nonpersonal. If the speaker meant “She cooked potatoes, but I did not see her do it”.

Therefore it should not come as a surprise that

Aymara speakers tend to speak more often and in more detail about the past than about the future. Indeed, often elderly Aymara speakers simply refused to talk about the future on the grounds that little or nothing sensible could be said about it.(2)

The Fourth Lesson: The idea of time derives from the alternation of the sun and the stars, the succession of light and darkness. Just like every idea, it is relative and it changes according to historical eras, latitudes and languages. So, let’s try a little experiment. After turning off the alarm, try and imagine that the new day is behind you. You cannot face it because it’s not facing you. You cannot know what it is going to bring, but you feel it lurking behind you. This idea might sound a bit scary, but it is also liberating: you just have to yield and let the future reach you.

The first three Days of ILLUSTRATI GENESIS are available here and here.

1) Ø. Dahl, “When The Future Comes From Behind: Malagasy and Other Time Concepts and Some Consequences For Communication”, in International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 19:2 (1995), pp. 197-209
2) R.E. Núñez ed E. Sweetser, “With the Future Behind Them: Convergent Evidence From Aymara Language and Gesture in the Crosslinguistic Comparison of Spatial Construals of Time”, in Cognitive Science, 30 (2006), pp. 401–450

Visitors From The Future

This article was originally published on #ILLUSTRATI n. 42, Visitors.

If we had the opportunity to communicate through time with humans of year 8113, would we be able to understand each other?
Supposing that every trace of our current civilisation had been erased, how could we explain our present to these remote descendants, these true aliens?

In 1936 this question arose in the mind of Dr. Thornwell Jacobs, the then director of the Oglethorpe University in Georgia, and lead to his decision to create a compendium of the human knowledge acquired by that time. What’s more, he thought it would have been better to show to the future men and women a wide range of significant objects that could convey a clear idea of the customs and traditions of the XX century.
It wasn’t an easy matter. Let’s think about it: what object would you include in your virtual museum if you had to summarise the entire history of the human race?

With the help of Thomas K. Peters, photographer, film producer and inventor, Dr Jacobs spent three years building his collection. As time passed by, the list of objects got more and more impressive and it included some unexpected items, which clearly the two curators reckoned that the humans of the Ninth millennium needed to see.

Among others, the collection contained 600.000 pages of text on microfilm, 200 narrative books, drawings of the greatest human inventions, a list of sports and hobbies which were fashionable during the past century, film showing historical events and audio recordings of the speeches of Hitler, Mussolini, Roosevelt and Stalin. And again: air shots of the main cities of the world, eyeglasses, dental plates, artificial limbs, navigation instruments, flower and plant seeds, clothes, typewriters… up to Budweiser beers, aluminium foil, Vaseline, nylons and plastic toys.

The two men then patiently sealed that huge pile of objects in hermetic recipients made of steel and glass, filling some capsules with nitrogen, in order to prevent the material oxidation. At last, they collocated the “museum”, exhibiting six millenniums of human knowledge, in a crypt under the Phoebe Hearst Memorial Hall. They did not forget to place a machinery called Language Integrator in front of the entrance: a tool that can teach how to speak English to the future historians, in case the Shakespeare language would not be at its bests any more.

The chamber was officially sealed on the 25th of May 1940. The plate affixed to the enormous stainless door specified that its insides did not contain any gold or jewelleries. Better safe than sorry.

This strange and restricted museum is still present and, if everything goes as planned, will remain untouched until year 8113, as indicated on the inscription. Yes, but why this specific year?
Dr. Jacobs considered the year 1936 as the bookmark on a hypothetical timeline, then added 6.177 years, corresponding to the amount of time passed from the establishment of the Egyptian Calendar (4241 B.C.).

The Oglethorpe University experience was regarded as the first “time capsule” of human history. The idea obtained a huge resonance and was followed by many other attempts of preserving the human knowledge and identity for future generations, by burying similar collections of memories and information.

Will the homo sapiens be still around in 8113? What will he look like? Would he be interested in discovering how we lived during the 40s of the XX century?
Beside the sci-fi (utopic or dystopic) visions of the future evoked by the time capsules, their charm resides in what they can tell about the past. An optimistic time, permeated by a blind trust in the human progress and still unscratched by the Second world war disaster, the holocausts and the nuclear horrors, an era unaware of the countless tragedies to come. A time when it was still possible to fiercely believe that future generations would have looked up to us with respect and curiosity.

Nowadays it is impossible to conceive in human terms such a distant future. The technology in our hands is already transforming us, our species, in ways that were unthinkable just a few decades ago. Our impact on the ecological and social system has already reached unprecedented levels.
Therefore, should we picture a “visitor” from year 8113 anyway… it is reasonable to presume that looking at us, his long-lost ancestors, he would shiver in disgust.

(Thanks, Masdeca!)

Scherzi della memoria

Il modo in cui il nostro cervello registra e rielabora i ricordi è ancora in gran parte sconosciuto alla scienza. Vi sono però alcuni casi estremi che potrebbero aiutare gli studiosi a comprendere i confini della nostra memoria: come ricordiamo, e come dimentichiamo.

La sindrome di Susac è stata scoperta negli anni ’70 dall’omonimo medico; si tratta di un disordine cerebrale che colpisce le donne fra i 18 e i 40 anni, e presenta molti segni clinici distintivi – ma fra tutti il più peculiare è la perdita della memoria a lungo termine. Chi è affetto da questa sindrome ricorda quasi esclusivamente ciò che gli è accaduto nelle 24 ore precedenti. Immaginate cosa significhi avere dimenticato dove eravate e cosa avete fatto la settimana scorsa, tre mesi fa, tre anni fa; risvegliarvi ogni mattina non sapendo se siete laureati, o fidanzati, o addirittura sposati… se è Natale, se vostra nonna è viva o morta, e via dicendo. Come dare un senso alla vostra persona, alla vostra identità?

È quello che accade a circa 250 persone in tutto il mondo. La sindrome arriva all’improvvio e in genere si manifesta con attacchi ricorrenti che durano più o meno da quindici mesi a 5 anni. Come si presenta se ne va, senza preavviso. Non sono segnalati casi mortali, ma su un terzo dei pazienti restano postumi sensoriali e neurologici di gravità variabile.

Jess Lydon, 19 anni, inglese, soffre della sindrome da qualche tempo. Rinchiusa in un infinito presente, non può ricordarsi nemmeno se ha già mangiato. Non osa avventurarsi fuori di casa, per paura di dimenticare la strada del ritorno; ma continua a pettinarsi e curarsi, perché «quando questo disastro sarà passato voglio che la vita mi trovi in ordine». La sindrome provoca anche stati confusionali e Jess è di tanto in tanto preda di terrori e convinzioni paranoiche e irreali – crede che dei chirurghi l’abbiano operata, lasciando una scarpa nel suo stomaco, o che la sua casa sia in realtà un ospedale psichiatrico. I neurologi non conoscono ancora le cause della sindrome, né sanno esattamente come curarla: si procede a tentoni, cercando di arginare le crisi, ma nessun farmaco si è rivelato efficace fino ad ora. Si sa soltanto che Jess guarirà prima o poi, anche se la perdita di udito e di vista potrebbe rimanere permanente.

Ancora più strana è l’opposta malattia di cui soffre l’americana Jill Price: come il Funes del celebre racconto di Borges, Jill non riesce a dimenticare. Ricorda esattamente quasi tutti i giorni della sua vita, da quando aveva 11 anni. È in grado di dire in che giorno e a che ora un determinato episodio di Dallas è andato in onda 20 anni fa, e anche cosa stava facendo lei in quel momento, se pioveva, se era un lunedì o un martedì, com’era vestito suo fratello, e via dicendo.

Quello che potrebbe sembrare un dono invidiabile, com’è facilmente intuibile, risulta essere nella realtà una vera e propria disgrazia. È la nostra capacità di dimenticare che ci permette di superare i problemi e metabolizzare il passato. Jill non può fare né l’una né l’altra cosa: ricorda esattamente tutte le volte in cui la madre l’ha rimproverata quando aveva 15 anni, sente ancora le precise parole così come sono state pronunciate, e ovviamente non può fare a meno di ripassare nella sua testa tutti i momenti drammatici della sua vita, primo fra tutti la morte dell’unico amore della sua vita, vittima di un infarto due anni fa. Il tormento di non riuscire a disfarsi del passato e voltare pagina è ciò che l’ha spinta a sottoporsi a innumerevoli esami e a divenire un caso clinico celebre, nella speranza di poter trovare una cura e finalmente archiviare le sue memorie senza doverle rivivere costantemente.

La sua sindrome si chiama ipertimesia, e la particolarità di questa affezione è che concerne principalmente la memoria autobiografica; questo significa che, paradossalmente, Jill ha difficoltà a memorizzare qualcosa volontariamente – l’enorme flusso di ricordi relativi alla sua vita e alle sue esperienze le impedisce di dare buoni risultati nei test di memoria. La sindrome ha alcuni punti di contatto con l’autismo e la sindrome dei savant, per quanto riguarda la calendarizzazione ossessiva che permette di ricordarsi data e ora di ogni evento; ma le scansioni cerebrali di Jill hanno mostrato anche una maggiore estensione dell’area normalmente associata con il comportamento maniaco-compulsivo, come se la sindrome potesse essere una sorta di ossessione non rivolta ad oggetti concreti, ma ai ricordi stessi, “collezionati” in maniera incontrollabile.


Tutti impariamo dal passato, e facciamo le nostre previsioni sulla base delle esperienze precedenti; la capacità di ricordare, e di dimenticare, forgia gran parte delle nostre azioni, e in definitiva sta alla base di chi siamo o pensiamo di essere. Eppure la nostra memoria è forse un equilibrio più delicato e misterioso di quello che sembrerebbe, una selezione e rielaborazione continua con cui la nostra mente “decide” a quali avvenimenti far spazio e quali accantonare, cosa è degno di essere ricordato e cosa possiamo, o dobbiamo, lasciare andare.

E anche cosa tutti noi possiamo immaginare di aver vissuto, “ricordando” eventi mai accaduti… ma questa è un’altra storia, ancora più affascinante, di cui parleremo certamente in futuro.