The Sciences

Your Mental Image of Time

Cosmic VarianceBy John ConwayNov 12, 2009 3:00 AM


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I've been meaning to write about this for, well, some time: how do we visualize time? What is the mental picture we have in our heads of this basic dimension of our existence? This is bound to be one the the stranger posts of mine you've read, but, so be it. Looking online I find basically no research or anything written on this subject, but I am quite certain that just about everyone has some picture of time in their heads. For me, it's quite a visual one, and past events and for that matter future ones are all attached to my mental picture of the time continuum. My notion of all history, from my own to that of the universe is inextricably linked with my internal mental images of time. The thing is, as I have reflected on how I actually internally visualize time, I have found it to be somewhat bizarre. Or maybe not - I don't really know because I haven't really explored this in one-on-one conversation with others and haven't learned from anything written out there just how different my picture is from others'. So here goes...I hope those of you out there who are intrigued or inspired by this will share their own images. The main thing is that my mental picture of time changes depending on the time scale involved, from a microsecond to a minute to an hour, day, week, month, year, or many years. Starting at the largest time scales, those of the cosmos, when I am looking back in time over billions of years I imagine the classical, boring sort of "time as a line" progressing from left to right, straight across my mental image. As we zoom in to more recent cosmological time, though, millions of years, the line becomes more of a curve, and curving toward me. But then, very oddly (and this pattern will repeat itself) when we get to the much more recent past, say the last few thousand years, the curve is revealed to be more of a strip of sorts and moving from down and to the right (that's the best way I can express it) toward the upper left. It's really strange: if I think of a time, say, 20 000 years ago, in my mental field of view it's definitely off to the right, and as I refer to more recent times, the ribbon is such that more recent times are to the left of earlier times. But this is not absolute: as we get to the last 2000 or so years, the earlier part is sort of coming straight at me, eventually becoming (you got it) a ribbon coming from the lower left to the upper right again. If I am considering the period from the Renaissance to the present, for example, I see a more distant past as actually more distant, off to the left, coming closer in more recent times an moving left to right. The future, on this time scale, goes off to my right sort of behind me (where I can't see - duh!) Okay I have probably lost at least 2/3 of the people who started reading this. Huh? Either this is so alien to how they think of time they don't really see what I am seeing, or don't care, or think that this is so off that wall it's not worth reading further. So, for the rest of you, the next part is where it gets kind of interesting. My mental timeline/ribbon, which has been snaking from left to right and back across my mental field of view, does a few more twists. As I think of the time scale of my life which began in the early 1960's (okay, 1959), those early 60's years are sort of again coming straight at me, becoming a left-to-right ribbon in the 70's and then definitely right-to-left by the mid 80's. The years from then to now flow from far away and to the right to nearby toward the left. But they don't cross the center of my mental picture - that's the present. If we zoom in further, say to the past several years, the ribbon is a string of months going back. As I view earlier and earlier months they recede, up and to the right, and merge with the ribbon of the decades. Events, major and minor, are recallable by zooming into my past picture of then-present time. They are all there (the ones I remember, anyway), and freakily often I can remember the exact dates and times they occurred. Last week to a few months ago is definitely on that ribbon, stretching up and to the right as we go further into the past. But then we get to yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Here the ribbon, which is segmented by lines marking the days, does a weird thing. For a given day, the ribbon starts out straight in front of me, going up, as if I had to climb it, the hours marked off by lines. The ribbon climbs up, into the darkness, reaching a peak and then, after midnight, descending down into the next day, week, month, and year, away from me, off into the distance in the left part of my mental view of time. The future, the near future anyway (years) is definitely to the left in my mind's eye. (And no, this whole post is not some sort of allegory of my personal political evolution...) The long term future is unpopulated by memories or images of expectations or hopes, and snakes off to the right. All this changes when we are talking about smaller time scales. As I zoom into the present hour, to finer and finer scales it becomes more and more a straight line extending from left to right. I can zoom in from here to any micro-time scale and it stays the same. Somehow the left-right snaking curve is attached to particular memories, including my memories of historical events about which I have learned. Micro-time is so non-specific that it doesn't trigger the snaky ribbon time view. Another oddity about me in particular is that I actually find it hard to use a standard calendar to keep track of appointments, important meetings etc. I don't see time on that seven-day table! But with a few anchor dates in the future, gotten from standard calendars, I can quickly calculate intervening dates and their days of the week. If I know I have an appointment on December 4, and an exam to give on December 7, I can see in my head what days they are and I do rather well remembering them. But at this moment, for example, I cannot tell you what day of the week Christmas is (though I know next January 18 is a Monday...) I know there will be plenty of eye-rolling at this possibly boring description of my mental view of time, but, as I say, I hope it will trigger lots of you out there to share your own. If you really think about it (and I bet you probably have not) you so have *some* sort of picture in your head. What is it?

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