How much space do your past, your present and your future take up? Here are two ways to find out how you organise time in your mind: Get some paper and draw three circles, representing your past, present and future. They can be any size, placed anywhere on the page and linked or unlinked.
Turn the paper over and then draw a straight line. Then mark four points on the line.
1) The start of the historical past (HP)
2) The start of your personal past (PP)
3) The start of your personal future (PF)
4) The`start of the historical future (HF)
How did you do? On the first exercise, are the circles linked or separate? Are they all the same size, or do they vary. If so, which is taking up the most space, and which the least?
On the second one, how close together are the personal and historical points? Or is your lifespan a small interlude in a long line of history?
Both of these tests were devised by Thomas Cottle, a US Navy doctor, to study time perception. They show that we find it pretty easy to organise time spatially, and that everyone has their own way of coding the way they organise it. I’ve uploaded mine here, so you can compare it with what you did.
In my version, the circles run North-South, they’re distinct from each other, and the present is much bigger than the future. The past is pretty tiny as well.
On the timeline exercise, the HP is at the start of the line. My PP and PF are quite close together about half way along and the HF starts at the same time as my PF.
You’re probably thinking how wrong I am. Why have I put the past below the future, when it clearly goes to the left/right (delete whichever is not applicable). How can the historical future start at the same time as my own future? Why don’t I take up more space on the line?
Get your colleagues and friends to do the same experiment and compare your results. It’s striking how different the pictures are. So what are the implications when you’re communicating your own ideas about time? What do you need to do to adjust the picture so that they can understand what you mean when you’re talking about big the future’s going to be, when you could fit theirs on a full stop?
Because we organise time spatially, it means we can fall into traps as well. More about that next week.