Shortly after Arrival (dir. Denis Villeneuve) came out, so did an interview with linguist Betty Birner about the film’s interpretation of the often-misquoted Sapir-Whorf hypothesis—basically the idea that a person’s language in one way or another influences or prescribes how they experience reality, often with regards to time, depending on how you quote it. Birner acknowledges that much of the science in the film is sound but chuckles at the conclusion that learning a language with circular glyphs allows a person to experience time as if it, too, were a circle. In the movie, however, past becomes indistinguishable from future, anxieties feel like memories, and pretty much every moment is a nasty feeling of déjà vu for protagonist Louise Banks because it turns out she can see her whole life both behind and ahead of her. If I just ruined the movie for you, don’t worry, because you have already seen it. You just don’t remember.
Having studied linguistics, I know the implications of the hypothesis are unfortunately not as cool in reality. Mandarin, for example, incidentally a big plot point in Arrival, makes no grammatical distinction between past and future, but, as economist M. Keith Chen says, “this does not mean that Mandarin speakers are unable (or even less able) to understand the difference between the present and future, only that they are not required to attend to it every time they speak.” As Chen and most linguists admit, there are too many other cultural and environmental factors dictating how people think to just attribute it entirely to their language.
I would like to counter, however, that maybe Arrival got this one right because I’m convinced that I am Louise Banks. I know that you’re scoffing as you read this because I can see the future. Hear me out.
Here’s what introductory psychology classes have taught me about how humans experience the world: At any given moment, we receive a great deal of sensory information that our brains try to process. We actually have many more than five senses, but sight, sound, smell, feel, and taste are the ones we’re most aware of. These, and our thoughts about them, more or less comprise our experiences. This is how the present feels.
The past is just a collection of memories of these experiences. When you remember a moment, you remember sights, sounds, smells, feels, and tastes, as well as your thoughts about them. Though it feels more distant and watery and we may forget details, we experience the past very similarly to the present. That’s actually why we get déjà vu—it’s not, in fact, something that’s happened before, but our brains get confused and process present information as if it were a memory.
Finally, when we try to imagine the future, the only frameworks we have to do so are the past and present—our lives as we have experienced them. When you fantasize about winning a Nobel Prize, or getting married, or reuniting the Black Eyed Peas, you are imagining sensations—sights, sounds, smells—because that’s the only way you know how to experience anything.
In other words, though our memories and fantasies are more silhouettes of sensations than sensations themselves, past, present, and future all look more or less the same.
Or they do for me anyway because I’m basically Louise Banks.
I tend to dwell on the past and especially get lost in the future. I can conceive all these different possibilities of what might have been and what could still be, so much of which is shaded by things I wish I could forget or worry about what is to come, so it feels like I can see my whole life both behind and ahead of me, and it all feels the same, kind of watery, yet it is so weird and freaky to me that, floating somewhere in all of that, I exist in only one exact moment.
Thinking about this again.
And I don’t know why I’m thinking about this again right now. I actually started writing and then abandoned this piece a while ago, but I guess something about circling back to a new year that is more or less like any other year makes one think about whether the passing of time is worth all the pomp and circumstance. You wouldn’t have known from the weather, at least in Michigan, that 2020 had arrived. And once that day has passed, does it still feel like a new year? I find it odd that January lasts more than a day or two. After that, what’s the point of it?
Usually, when I get lost in thought about this, I have to shake myself out of it because I’ve wasted fifteen minutes here and I’m probably zoning out while driving. It’s funny; I honestly can’t remember if I started getting this existential anxiety before or after seeing Arrival for the first time because I can’t remember the chronology of anything anymore.
Now that I think about it, I should maybe watch it again. Not to try to make any more sense of my own existence, but just because it’s a good movie. I haven’t seen it since at least last year.
Jeffrey (‘17) ultimately settled on studying film and media studies and French, though food is his greatest passion. He lives in Grand Rapids and is trying to teach himself computer science so he can, among other things, cyberbully Elon Musk.