Picturing the concept of time warps my mind

Editor’s Notebook column

By Rick Palsgrove

“Time just gets away from us.” – said by the character Mattie Ross from Charles Portis’ book, “True Grit.”

Not only does time get away from us, it speeds up, slows down, stops, warps, and some of us even visualize it in our minds.

Knowing that I am obsessed with the concept of time, a couple of my friends recently gave me the book, “Time Warped,” by Claudia Hammond, for my birthday. (Hammond is the host of the BBC psychology radio shows “All in the Mind” and “Mind Changers,” as well as a part-time faculty member at Boston University in London, England.)

In her book, Hammond addresses many of our perceptions of time including our views of what constitutes the past, present, and future; why time seems to speed up as we age; time’s relationship to memory; time’s illusions; how we mentally time travel; plus much more than I can go into here. It’s the chapter where she discusses how we visualize time that grabbed my attention the most.

Hammond notes that, while not everyone “sees time” in their mind, many people do have their own unique time map in their head they use to reference their place in time and space.

I do this and I always thought it was just something I did, so it made me happy to read that such time conceptualization is common.

Often people picture the months of the year in a circle or oval, like a clock face, with each individual placing January on the circle wherever one feels it belongs. Some see the months progressing clockwise, but according to Hammond and other researchers, almost four times as many people see the months progressing counter-clockwise. I’m one of those people.

I see the months of the year forming in my mind as being on a slightly flattened oval with January being where 6 o’clock would be. Then the remaining months fill out the rest of the oval counter-clockwise. I think I developed this mental image of time when I was very young and first understood the idea of “months.”

I, and others, also mentally visualize the days of the week. However, in my case, the days go in a clockwise fashion with Monday at the top left of the oval followed by the weekdays with Saturday and Sunday filling bigger spaces at the bottom of the oval.

Some people see the days of the week as a line of rectangles going from left to right. There are many other variations.

Visualizing the years takes on many forms, but the images are usually grouped in decades and centuries.

How do you see time?

The curious thing to me is that researchers say most people do not see time in their heads in a form that looks like a calendar or a diary. It’s like somewhere down deep in our psyches we perceive that time infinitely flows round and round and isn’t boxed in by the squares on a calendar.

Why do we do this?

According to Hammond, “Time constantly surprises us and confuses us. We can’t write it down. We can’t see it. We can’t capture it. So the ability to picture time even to a limited extent helps us to manipulate it in our minds and paves the way for mental time travel.”

Another interesting aspect Hammond points out in our visualization of time is how we associate time and space daily in our real world activities.

She presents the following question to illustrate how we separate into two groups regarding our view of the movement of time. Which group we are part of depends on our answer to this question:

“Next Wednesday’s meeting has had to be moved forward by two days. What day is the meeting happening now?”

The answer can be either Monday or Friday. (There is no wrong answer.)

If you answered “Monday,” that means you view time as constantly moving like “a conveyor belt where the future comes toward you.”

If you answered “Friday,” it means “you have a sense that you are actively moving along a timeline towards the future.”

So, according to Hammond, one either stays still while the future comes towards one or one moves along towards the future.

Whew. That’s a lot to think about. I answered “Friday.” How did you answer?

For fun, bring these time concepts up in conversations with friends and family and see how many variations of how people “see” time arise and who sees time coming towards them and who feels they move along in time.

It’s interesting to think about time and our interaction with it. We can’t control time, but then again, time can’t control how we choose to use it.

We’re all time travelers.

Rick Palsgrove is editor of the Southeast Messenger.

“Time Warped,” by Claudia Hammond is published by Harper Perennial. Visit harperperennial.com and claudiahammond.com for information.

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