Memory, Time and Habitus

On Google+, M. Laura Moazedi shared a post on the connection between memory and movement. She discusses chronesthesia, the process by which we ‘travel through time mentally.’ Aging and mental illness have an impact on our sensory perception and memories associated with the past and present. In a healthy state, remembering the past affects our bodily movements and sense of space. How might this link with the sociological concept of habitus?

In a 2010 study by Lynden Miles and colleagues, participants were fitted with a movement sensor and were asked to wear a blindfold. They were asked to stand comfortably in a specific spot and to follow one of the two imagery instructions. First, remember a typical day four years before. Second to imagine everyday life circumstances and events on typical day four years earlier. The researchers find that pparticipants who thought about the past moved backward, while those who thought about the future moved forward.

This study makes me think of the concept of habitus. In sociology and anthropology, this term refers to the embodiment of history and culture. That is, how our bodies learn rituals of movement and behaviour from early socialisation in such a way that we end up doing things without noticing why or how we do it. It is also a way to think about how social structures condition our bodies and thinking. We come to associate certain ideas, ways of moving our bodies and so on as being “natural” or innate or “second nature,” but in fact many of the things we do with our bodies is an act of history and culture (see Bourdieu, Chapter 3).

It seems that chronesthesia, like habitus, is socialised so profoundly into our mental development that it affects our physical movements and our memory. 

On Laura’s original post, I also commented on the cross-cultural application of this study. Sensory perception is shaped by culture and environment, as is our autobiographic memory. In Western societies, we think of time as linear: the past is backwards. It is a place of nostalgia or it is sometimes associated with oppression, tradition, and lack of development. The future is at the opposite end of the past – it is forward, it is associated (often) with positive progress and something to aspire to. In other cultures time is not linear and the past, present and future do not have such neat positive/negative distinctions. 

How might chronesthesia be affected by culture, place and habitus?


Miles, L. K., L. K. Nind, and C. N. Macrae (2010) ‘Moving Through Time,’ Psychological Science, 21(2): 222-223.