Personal Column – 3rd Place
Picturing the concept of time warps my mind
“Time just gets away from us.” – said by a 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 that 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 that 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 whenever 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 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 deep down in our psyches we perceive that time infinitely flows round and round and isn’t boxed by the squares on a calendar.
Why do we think this?
According to Hammond, “Time constantly surprises 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 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.
One of the things I’ve noticed about getting older is how sudden realizations pop into one’s mind.
We go along in life working and doing all of the other things we do to live and maintain ourselves. We often don’t notice our bodies aging. We still think we’re the young people that are floating around in the memories in our brains.
Then one day this thought bubbled up in my head: I can’t remember the last time I ran as fast as I could.
It’s not that I’m inactive. I bicycle a lot, exercise, hike and so forth. I’ve even run slowly for short distances when I had to. I’m in decent shape. But when was the last time I sprinted? I mean, really pushed my legs to cover ground quickly. I don’t remember. Maybe it’s when I finally called an end to my basketball playing career when my knees said, “Enough!” some years ago.
Running as fast as one can is common when you’re a kind and in our young adulthood. It’s a joyous experience, almost Walt Whitmanesque in its liberating physical exuberance.
But, as the years progress we somehow find ourselves in fewer and fewer situations that call for flat our fast running. (5K race enthusiasts and Senior Olympians excluded, as I know they still have it in them and that makes me happy.)
In general, as we grow older and supposedly wiser, we tend to not take changes with our bodies as hamstrings, knees, shoulders, feet, and various other bones and tendons balk at the idea of unnecessarily hopping a fence, jumping up and down on things, or sprinting a 100 yard dash.
One of my fellow aging peers – who, when we were young, could jump over a picnic table lengthwise, easily walk along the top bar of a swing set like a high wire daredevil, and climb rocks like they were a ladder – recently mentioned he contemplated hopping the short distance from the floor to the first step of a staircase wondering if it was worth the chance of making his knees complain.
Things like running as fast as we can were once common in our lives and they slip away from us without our consciously meaning for them to fade. Distractions of numerous sorts dictate to our attention. We start caring more about other activities and ideas that are different from when we were younger. But, as we get older, it makes one wonder what other common things we are not noticing as the years roll by.
We change. We adapt. We grow in other ways.
The freedom of two wheels
One of the best things my father taught me how to do when I was a kid is also one of the simplest and longest lasting. He taught me how to ride a bicycle.
We had a couple of bikes that I shared with my brother and sister when we were growing up in the 1960s. One was a sleek, red Huffy with a front end wire basket purchased from Bolenbaugh Hardware in Canal Winchester. The other was a heavy framed, blue Schwinn that belonged to an aunt who was kind enough to lend it to us.
One fine summer day when I had finally grown enough for my feet to reach the pedals, my dad took me and the Huffy out to the sidewalk in front of our house and taught me how to ride.
His instructions were simple and direct. Stay steady. Steer smoothly. The pedaling will help me keep my balance. Watch where you are going. Remember to brake.
I got on the bike. My dad gave the bike’s rear fender a gentle push and I began pedaling.
In the 1960s, Groveport’s Main Street did not have sidewalks extending all the way along both sides of the street like today. Instead, some portions were dirt paths. So as part of my first ride I had to wobbily steer my way off the sidewalk on to a root riddled dirt path. After somehow getting through that woody obstacle course, the bike and I rolled onto another, smoother narrow dirt path bordering a nearby grassy vacant lot.
I was surprised that I was staying balanced and upright as I wheeled away. Being a kid, I was immediately entranced by the sensation of movement. It felt like I was flying. Enraptured by the experience I did not remember the most important rule my dad gave me: Remember to brake. I forgot how to
work the coaster brake!
So I kept rolling looking for a way to stop. I spotted a concrete upright that marked a neighbor’s driveway and, not thinking of the potential consequences, steered into it. That stopped me with a jolt as the front tire bounced against the post as I held on tight. It was not an elegant first voyage, but I did stop and luckily there was no damage to the bike or me.
My dad walked up slowly behind me. He did not scold me. He did not tease me. He did not berate me. He calmly said, “Remember to brake.” He then showed me again how to work the coaster brake.
We turned the bike around and I pedaled away back towards home. When I got to our house I eased on the brake and glided into the driveway. I could ride a bike!
Soon dad showed me how to fix a bike’s flat tire, how to keep the chain oiled, and how to adjust the seat and handle bars as I grew.
I rode the Huffy to school in my elementary school years, primarily for its handy front basket to carry school stuff. But I also rode my aunt’s blue Schwinn quite a bit. I could wedge a basketball into the curved frame of the Schwinn and would wheel the bike down to the basketball courts behind the elementary school.
Someone from the neighborhood nicknamed the Schwinn, “The Camel,” because its seat rose up from the frame like a camel’s hump.
Being able to ride and take care of a bike is one of the first sweet tastes of independence and freedom for a kid. It makes you mobile and enables you to explore your neighborhood, community, and distant countryside in a way you couldn’t before. It teaches you awareness of your surroundings. It connects you with other kids.
It’s a great skill for parents to impart to their children, skill that stays with one for a life time.
These days I continue to ride a bicycle frequently. It still gives me a sense of freedom, a feeling that began on a sidewalk on a summer’s day decades ago with a gentle push from my father.