Your Mental Image of Time

By John Conway | November 11, 2009 10:00 pm

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?

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Miscellany, Personal, Time
  • Christopher M

    This is interesting. Can I ask an amateur’s question?: Does it mean anything for how we should visualize the temporal dimension that, in the math of special relativity, the time dimension component of the structure of Minkowski space-time is negative (unlike all the spatial dimensions, which are positive)?

    I really am an amateur at this, so please correct me, but…: Before I understood how Minkowski spacetime was constructed mathematically, I used to picture time as just a succession of three-dimensional world-states — just like 2D planes stack to form a 3D cube, I imagined an (infinitely dense) series of 3D world-states “stacking up” along the temporal dimension.

    But it seems like that must not be right, given how time subtracts from the Minkowski norm rather than adding to it. (Forgive me if I am mangling the math, I find the physics fascinating but haven’t studied math beyond vector calculus.) This is a bit afield of your post but seems quite related and something I’ve been wondering about.

  • Mandeep

    John- before this, i only suspected you were a freak — now i am sure. Jest kiddin’ — an intriguing post indeed, and i guess what interests me most is how you came to this picture of time, has it always been there or has it evolved, and that it must matter to you enough that you want to compare your view of it with others’..? parts of your description seem nearly synesthetic to me, you apparently picture time very graphically. i don’t think i have such a detailed physical view of it (which is indeed curious, if we dwell on it much, given that it’s just the 4th component of a 4 vector, but i’m certain much ink has been spilled on this point in the past), i guess i always picture my life as having a finite extent on some ‘number line’, along with all other humans’, and beings, and that’s the starting point of my picture. i then see the present as kind of a pointer moving along this line, and cutting across all other line segments that are currently ‘living’. the Big Bang forms the ultimate start of the line, as far as we can currently tell (and unsatisfying as that is), and the future of it is murky and fades into the fog (since we have no idea e.g. where the heck the current evidence accelerated expansion will lead us ultimately.. at the moment, it doesn’t look to be anywhere good). i suppose really this isn’t such an atypical picture for a scienctist-type, so perhaps others will have much more ‘colorful’ ways of seeing it…

  • T.

    What, then, is time? As long as no one asks me, I know. As soon as I
    wish to explain it to him who asks, I know not.
    — Saint Augustine of Hippo,
    Confessions, Book XI, Chapter 14, AD 397

  • Raj

    Interesting to see how one’s perception of time differs. I do not think of time in such a structured way, perhaps because as a Microscopist I don’t have to. But there is another important consideration. Our perception of the world is also highly dependent on the language in which we think. This has been proven.

    So, for instance, the inhabitants of Pormpuraaw, a small Aboriginal community in Australia, when talking about space, use words like north, south, east, west instead of the usual left, right etc. The result is that these speakers have to know their exact location with respect to directions at all times and consequently, they are much better navigators. More interestingly, with respect to the present topic, these people were asked to place pictures of temporal progressions (e.g. man aging) in sequence. Now English speakers would do it from left to right, Hebrew from right to left. The people from Pormpuraaw placed them from east to west! Many other examples show that one’s perception of the world is heavily influenced by the language one speaks.

    More information in this very interesting article :

  • Alf

    There is some discussion of this in Kant’s Transcendental Aesthetic. In particular, I find the argument that the intuition of time is necessary for Mathematics very interesting.

  • Dr. Goulu

    For me, the past is a block of ice shaped like a cone, with its tip at the big bang on the left. The base of the cone on the right is exposed to the vaporous future, which condenses on the surface at various rates, forming relativistic holes. So the “present” is a thin evolving surface, through which I can see the past of the cosmic snowflakes around mine.

    Well, I realize that I described my vision of the whole universe, not only time. So ok, my time is a logarithmic axis going from left (Big Bang at log (0) ) to “far” on the right.

  • GAC

    I need pictures.

    Oddly I do know that various languages express time differently. Some have a spacial metaphor of moving forward through time, while others see time as coming from behind (the future being behind you). English actually sort of has both — possibly “before” and “after” are associated with backwards-time and then we later acquired the metaphor.

    I’m coming to the limits of my knowledge, but I know Chinese has backward time, in addition to a “time goes down” for longer time-scales (“next month” 下个月 lit. “down one month”). I think Spanish is more in the forward-time sphere, I get the impression that “pasar por adelante” referring to time would be talking about the future — but like English it’s not so clear.

  • bad Jim

    I don’t picture time spacially, so I can’t comment exactly. I’ll note that I don’t know many people who can wrap their minds around the idea that space can curve, which makes it difficult to discuss gravity and relativity. I’ve even got a brother who was positively offended by the idea that my radio-controlled watch always gives the right time to the second; to him, time was something other, mystical, flexible … okay, I don’t really know how he understood time, but I suspect drugs may have been involved.

    To me, time is just t, the brave little independent variable.

  • mgary

    I find it rather interesting that you have a definite mental picture of time. While I can certainly picture time in the context of physics (depending on the context I treat it like either another spatial direction or do a mental 3+1 decomposition into time slices), my picture of time doesn’t extend beyond that. Actually, your description immediately reminded me of the description of number form synesthesia, where people have a definite mental image of the integers forming a line, often with specific curving/rolling forms. Wikipedia has a reasonable description, although I’m sure there are more detailed descriptions available.

  • Phillip Helbig

    My picture of time is very similar to yours. Also, I visualise the number “line” in a very
    similar fashion. These images have been constant as far back as I can remember.

    A somewhat similar concept: most people think of moving through time as similar to
    walking, i.e. a) we are facing the future and b) we are moving. As Robert Pirsig points out,
    the ancient Greek image of time was quite different: a) we are facing the past, not the future
    and b) time is moving and we are standing still. The metaphor would be standing in a river
    looking downstream. This is a much better metaphor: we don’t KNOW what is in the
    future, even the immediate future, though we might can guess based on the past. All that
    we can see (remember) is the past, and the further it recedes, the less clear it becomes. And,
    of course, we can do nothing to influence the passage of time, any more than we can stop the
    flow of a river.

  • Hiranya

    This is one of the most interesting posts I’ve read on CV! I have a definite internal picture of time which sounds quite different from yours. It is not very visual and thus hard to describe, except for a sense that I am at the centre and time zooms in and out from me radially ahead or behind me, depending on whether I go forward or back in time. It is a bit like a past/future lightcone, but this internal representation definitely preceded any study of physics. But there is an additional tactile sensation to my internal concept of time (it has a feeling of climbing uphill or downhill for past/future, and resolves into discrete steps if I look at a given period of time closely enough). I have mild synaethesia in other forms which seems to also involve tactile sensations, so I wonder if my weird internal time concept is related to that.

  • Cartesian

    For me time is motion, because without motion there is not any time.

  • Steffi Lewis

    I’ve always wondered how other people view time …

    I don’t get a solid image for other time periods but one thing I’ve always been able to see is a year. I see a big dark 3D granite torus with a cloudy blue/black background and a soft white light shining over the part of the year we’re in. the front is angled at around 20 degrees down and the left angled around 10 degrees down … very specific visualisation hey?

    There are no numbers or words showing, but I know that the beginning of the year is offset slightly to around 1 o’clock and I’m viewing it from 5 o’clock which is strange as I was born on the summer solstice, so you’d think the beginning would be 12 and I’d be at six.

    Funnily enough, my view of the entire universe is as a torus as well.


  • Stewart Martin-Haugh

    I read somewhere (can’t remember where) that the ancient Greeks referred to the future as being behind them, so they were always facing the past. I like the image, because it is far truer than the English idiom of “facing the future”. Clearly you don’t know the future, so you can’t “see” it.

    I used to have different colours for different days of the week when I was a child, but I dropped that at some point (I can no longer remember which colour was which). I kind of visualise time (years, months, decades etc), but not in a consistent way that I could describe in words.

  • Pamela Yow

    Interesting that you describe visually. When I consider ‘time’ as an entity – the tangibility is more of a feeling for me I guess. I practice staying ‘in the present moment’ as much as I can (some days more so than others), which feels ‘normal’ or ‘regular’ or like nothing. The past, let’s say from the beginning of the universe until 1962, when I was born, feels like a thick blanket, or a quilt. When I consider the past, it feels big and covers the inside of my head, but it is not oppressive. Individual considerations, or moments in this time period, may vary in weight. The physical universe, the cosmos, feels lighter, like a fisherman’s net with random objects caught in it, but is like a blanket as well. My own past, when I think about it, occupies, as a feeling of weight, the top-and-back portion of my head. The future feels somewhat like the universe net but lighter and thinner. When I consider the future it feels misty and mostly empty with bits of weight attached to any events I have planned already. The past feels like it is all around me, where as the future feels more in front of my eyes. One reply I read mentioned the calender…I need a calender as a reminder to ‘go’ or ‘do’ on specific days, but the calender doesn’t seem to represent time so much to me.

    Interesting topic. Something new to think about! Maybe for some people ‘time’ and ‘space’ are more intrinsically synonymous than for others.

  • Rohan

    I’m in the same boat as Cartesian. (Is that a case of nominative determinism or just a pseudonym?)
    When asked to visualise time I just imagine time as a fourth dimension projected onto a three dimensional space (which could in turn be projected down onto a two dimensional screen or paper). Much in the same way a three dimensional simulation or computer game is represented on a screen, where a homogeneous element approaching the viewer appears as a solid pixel that ‘smears’ out to become a larger group of pixels. I see time represented in my mind as the movement through three dimensions as a smeared out line of movement (think painting with a brush instead of just dabbing individual dots).
    The most interesting thing about this projection is how human beings (as objects not as groups of molecules) appear. At birth, a blob miraculously begins to exist, this grows to a maximum size, then disappears at death. Obviously the elements making this being up stick around but work with me here…
    So this would create a long snake-like shape for every person, they would be of different lengths as people live different lengths of time, but most would be more or less the same size.
    However these snakes would very quickly coil up, each day a new coil would appear at it’s front end, this is due to the rotation of the earth. And of course the earth rotates around the sun (though the way the UK government views science I’m sure this idea will be re-declared as heresy before long), so what I’m getting at is a 4D human to me is just a giant donut! Or torus for the maths fascists.

  • ah

    There is some psychological research on time perception, but not as much as you might think. For example, some people see time going forward and others see it going backwards. If you have a meeting on Wednesday, and I ask you “can we shift that meeting back two days”, is the meeting now on Monday or Friday? Different people give different answers.

    The very spatial representation of time that people describe here might be related to spatial representations of number. People normally represent numbers on a mental number line, and this has measurable effects on their behaviour. For example, you are faster to respond to the number 3 with your left hand than with your right hand, because small numbers are on the left (this is the SNARC effect). And people with synaethesisia for numbers often have a very spatial way to represent different numbers. Maybe they have the same for time?

    I’m also wondering what proportion of the comments here are from physicists, and if they have different time perception from non-scientists?

  • Loki

    I know couple of books where this issue is somewhat clarified. E.g. : Stephen Pinker’s “The Stuff of Thought”, 2007. The basic idea is that we think about time using metaphors of space. Soome people claim that all our high consciousness (“i think” part, not things like recognizing yourself in the mirror) is probably nothing else than a big set of spatial metaphors. You “see” the point? :-)

  • Pineyman

    Interesting post. My mental image of time is something like Pamela described. I have a 3-D “spiderweb” of interconnected events that, once I have the relevant data & given all the associated interconnections, I can associate a “time label” with. I never “see” the “time stamp” first.

    Long time lurker – first post.

  • Ellipsis

    I don’t think about myself at all when I think about things that are vastly more important than me, such as time. My mental images are of the Big Bang and the expansion of the Universe (long timescales), clocks ticking (medium timescales), and radioactive decays (short timescales).

  • Venessa Miemis

    There’s actually a good amount of research that’s summarized nicely on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy site, called ‘The Experience and Perception of Time’ ( the bibliography at the bottom can give you further reading.

    There’s also a lot of emerging research on the perception of space/time and how it’s being warped by our perceived presence online (telepresence – and in virtual worlds.

    It raises some questions as to how we’ll experience time in virtual space in the future, and how our perceptions of time in our memory will be shaped. (how will our memory banks determine the duration of events or experiences in online spaces?

    interesting stuff.

  • Phillip Helbig

    “I read somewhere (can’t remember where) that the ancient Greeks referred to the future as being behind them, so they were always facing the past. I like the image, because it is far truer than the English idiom of “facing the future”. Clearly you don’t know the future, so you can’t “see” it.”

    Errm, perhaps in comment #10?

  • Gammaburst

    I like the metaphor of a man in a rowboat. His back is towards the direction of travel (into the future) and he navigates by looking back at where he’s been.

  • Dan

    I’ve also got a definite mental image of time, which is also completely inconsistent at different scales, but mostly different from yours.

    A week is arranged in a circle; normally I think of the circles as flat, although “really” they form a 3D spiral of course. Time goes around the circle counterclockwise(!?), with Saturday and Sunday at the top taking about 40% of the space (Sunday goes from “12:00” to “9:30” on the clock face, Saturday from “2:30” to “12:00”), and the weekdays evenly split among the rest of the space. Oh, and the days aren’t slices like pie slices, they’re wedges; the innermost part of the circle is cut out.

    Months sometimes look like calendar pages, though I don’t often think in those terms.

    Years are in counterclockwise circles, like weeks, but with equally-sized slices for each month, and starting from “3:00”. (They always started at 3:00, long before I learned about polar coordinates.) When I think of a past event, there is generally a sense of its position on the year circle attached to the memory. (Likewise with future plans.)

    Long timescales are timeline-like. When thinking about my lifetime, or the future, the timeline goes from past on the left to future on right. But if I’m thinking about events before my birth, I usually flip it around, with the past extending off to the right. This is not an inconsistency though; it’s still the same timeline, I’m just looking at it from the other side. (For some reason, I want the left to be well-anchored [by my birth or the present day], and the right to extend off into the distance.)

    I have sometimes wondered if the week/year circles are inspired by something from my kindergarten classroom or something like that. (ie, big poster, “Today is:”, brightly-colored circle with a pointer that the teacher moves each day, etc). But I imagine they’d probably go clockwise in that case…

  • douglass truth

    I always had a mental image of the year – a kind of twisted off center figure-8, by which I knew – or more accurately – could see where I was in the year. About 10 years ago I had a temporal lobe brain infection, and for a few months lost my speech abilities. But the mental image of the year never came back, and now I have to have a calendar on the wall to “see” where I am in the year.
    I recently read a story about synaesthesia (sp) and it included this kind of physical representation of time. Until then I’d never heard of anyone else having it. Interesting, your different versions of it!

  • Stewart Martin-Haugh

    @Philip Helbig #22
    Sorry, I somehow missed your comment when writing my own. Thanks for giving the source in your earlier comment: is it from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance?

  • Kevin

    My main physical conceptions of time are in terms of years or weeks. Both involve spirals, although oriented differently.

    For years, I think of them as a clockwise spiral going upwards, such that any two years make a complete circle when seen from “above.” For example, if I picture this year and then next year, it’s a circle where the bottom is January 2009, the left middle is Summer 2009, the top is Winter 2009-2010, the right middle is Summer 2010, etc. There’s definite seasonal imagery connected to this view. To try to demonstrate this, a diagram is -(:)-, where the -‘s are summers and the .’s are winters. I often picture myself as being “on” a certain part of the spiral/circle, e.g. right now I’m coming up to the “top” of the 2009-2010 circle.

    For weeks, I think of them as a spiral going to the right, so that if you look at it from the side, “days” are in the front and “nights” are in the back. I picture a week like this: |S|M|T|W|R|F|S| (often without the days labeled, but I put that there for clarity), where each day goes off to night and then loops around behind to connect to the next day in the morning.

    I imagine any other timescale as just a long line going left to right.

  • Metre

    Sorry, but I have a rather Newtonian mental picture – it’s just a timeline with the past on the left and the future to the right. I’m sitting still at “now” and the line is moving to the left – time streaming from the future to the now to the past. To visualize the past, I can mentally reposition myself on the line or zoom in (or out) on the scale.

    Sometimes I measure units of time in lifetimes (about 80 years) instead of years. Next year (2010) will be the 234th anniversary of the US Declaration of Independence – less than 3 lifetimes ago. Not very long ago when looked at from that persepective.

    @Cartesian #12 says time is motion, but motion is relative. It may be better to say that time is a measure of change: if nothing changes, then time doesn’t flow. Goes back to the 2nd law, I suppose – the universe seeking out equilibrium (max entropy). Once it gets there, no more changes, no more time.

  • toomanytribbles

    my mind’s eye has some elements similar to yours, some quite different.

    i think it would be very interesting to gather a bunch of illustrations from everyone — how each of us visualizes time.

  • nina

    i love this post. i remember when i was really young and learning about numbers, i was trying to explain to my brother how i viewed numbers, and he looked at me like i was crazy, then i learned that everyone must visualize this differently in their heads.

    For me, i view a time-line the same i view a number line. I see numbers in white on a black background of space, lower numbers/ past years, trail off to the left and larger numbers/ future ascends away from me and to the right. When I zoom into a number line my perspective swoops from my upper right view to a lower left to view my timeline face-on (so i’m not standing in the middle of the time vector, but viewing it from space). Weirdly, when zooming in on the number line, i see numbers 0-20 stacked up vertically, 0 at the bottom, and 20 at the top. But then from 20- 100, all the numbers are lined up horizontally, 20 starting on the left, and 100 ending on the right. From 100, the vertical ascension to 120 starts again, followed by the sharp turn to the right as I count to 200, thus forming a step-like line. When i think about recent decades, i see the years on a number line, but then pictures associated with these years I see above these number values.

    I picture a calendar completely differently. I view the months, january to december, as if on a clear 2-d tablet, with weeks stacked up on one another. It’s hard to say my perspective in relation to this 2-d tablet, because sometimes viewing the year as a whole i see january in the upper left, and the end of the year in the bottom right. But when I think about the present date, i put myself on the tablet and then i see the end of the year ahead of me sloping downward, as if i’m on a slide, and previous months above and behind me. As the next year comes around, i just start again at the top of the tablet.
    When I view a week, M-F are in a horizontal line in rectangles, but below that are two rectangles for Sunday (on the left) and Sat (on the right).
    I don’t have a specific visualization for hours in a day, and therefore, i usually have to schedule out my tasks for a day and my week on a piece of paper, or now, on my nifty phone.
    I notice that my view of time isn’t very consolidated because I have different views for years, months, and weeks. But all of this has worked well for me so far. I don’t think i could even change these perspectives even if i tried adopting the visualization lets say, of climbing a ladder marking the hours throughout the day. I find it very interesting though. Thanks for the post.

  • JP

    Interesting post. I have a BA in math and used visualizations to solve problems. I used to see numerical problems in time and space, for which I used to compose a solution. In terms of space and time, I often visualize time as a continuous curve with vertical fluctuations above and below a linear path to represent my mood, a simple harmonic motion. For example, if I think about an event that made me feel positive emotions, I can visualize a rising on the vertical scale. I don’t have such visualizations for dates, but simply see days, weeks, months, years, etc. as subsets within time and space. However, I don’t remember things by writing them on a calendar. I usually just remember upcoming events by visualizing the events themselves, like seeing myself sitting at a meeting when Tuesday comes around. So, when Tuesday comes I start my day visualizing a meeting.

  • Robin

    Fascinating! I see years as circles (sorry to be cliche) – like discs piled on top of one another, each one rotated slightly so that last year my birthday may have fallen on a Tuesday, this year a Thursday… etc. Distant past (like thousands of years) become more like a fuzzy linear time line, perhaps because those years don’t have the reference days (like holidays) to stack up onto my discs.

  • Peter

    Hi John,

    You should have a look at this BBC story from a while back. It’s about the sort of thing you’re talking about.

  • Jeremy

    Interesting… I’m not a physicist, so I don’t put a lot of thought into time. I certainly don’t have a succinct image of time in my head like you described. When someone says “2000 years ago” I tend to conjure up images of what I think things looked like 2000 years ago. 2000 years also kinda feels like a long time. When talking about millions or billions of years, I find I can’t really wrap my head around just how much time that is. I just relate those timescales to things that I’m familiar with – millions of years I tend to relate to evolutionary time, billions to how long stars/the universe have been around. Minutes or hours are also not visual. I just think about what a minute or hour usually feels like, or what I can do in that amount of time. I never see a linear progression of time unless someone tells me to look at it in that way.

  • JP

    That’s a good article, Peter. I saw a show on either discovery or nat geo about savants that possess the same condition. I remember one man that mentally calculated the decimals of pi out to some extreme number of places, a few thousand I believe. He said he saw numbers as colors and shapes, which composed themselves upon calculation and were decoded by his mind. Really cool stuff.

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    My picture of time is literally a graphical one, i.e., your typical 1+1d plot of Minkowski space. I had a bit of an introduction to S.R. in undergrad, have done a fair amount of reading about it on my own, and have also made as close a study as I could of Feynman’s “Q.E.D.”, with its very basic Feynman Diagrams. I probably did have a more vivid or dreamlike picture as a kid, but that’s been supplanted by this very prosaic X and t axis thing. The future, therefore, is “up”. My picture in 3+1d is even more stupid: It’s the usual XYZ Cartesian coordinates floating sideways on a “time line” that isn’t even orthogonal to any of the other axes. I’ve tried, oh I’ve tried, to “picture” movement of the three axes in a fourth spatial dimension, but the best I can do is a crude movie in my head of a ball floating around the “box” formed by the X, Y, and Z axes. Movement indicating time, of course, which is really cheating. I’m afraid I’m just pathetic at it.

  • The Nerd

    When I read that BBC article about seeing time, my jaw dropped. There, floating around the illustration of that person, is exactly how I view the months of the year! I don’t “see” it as in I could literally reach out and touch it in front of me, but whenever I think about time, I am unable to process that thought without a vision popping up in my mind of a “time ribbon” of some sort. In discussing hours, I literally cannot process concepts of time without first viewing the “pie chart” on an analog clock in my mind’s eye. (In other words, I process 8am to 4pm as 2/3 of a pie chart.) When talking about a day or month within a year, I see myself as zooming in or out of the large loop in the linked image. Multiple years, decades, and centuries take the form of a literal number line, broken into centuries, each stacked on top of each other. Millennia of human history are on their own short timeline. I don’t know if this technically counts as synesthesia, but as it is a literally involuntary visualization, it might be. [This comment brought to you by the word L for “literally”.]

  • Michael Slezak

    This definitely sounds like synesthesia. I’ve spoken to a couple of people who describe a similar phenomenology and they didn’t realise that it wasn’t completely normal until quite late in life.

    There has been work on how people perceive time but I haven’t seen any on how synesthetics perceive it. If you do a google scholar search for either “perception of time” or “phenomenology of time”, you’ll get a bunch of results.

  • sm

    Interesting article. It could been clearer if there was a picture to go along with the post :)

    I usually don’t think of time as a whole. When I do think of the past of the future I just think of individual moments. If I think of 10,000 years ago I am the hunter lighting a fire and wondering what the hell are those tiny lights in the sky. If I think of four billion years ago I am the earth – a gaint chemical lab on the verge of a starting a new story.

    If I do think of time as a whole I do not associate it with motion. Rather I see a frozen continuous sequence of events extending both in the past and into the future, more or less like a cloudy white frozen stream, with past being left and future being right (rationally I know that the events in the future have not happened , yet I visualise them as being already there). I am outside this strip and I can zoom in to any event I want and “see” it (or jump into it and live it) in perfect clarity and detail.

  • Aaron F.

    Weeeeird! I had no idea that some people have a vivid, geometric picture of time. If I try to visualize “yesterday,” or “last summer,” I just get images and sounds from those times. (Although I’m not really good at recalling what happened at a certain time; I’m much better at recalling events.) For times I don’t remember personally, it’s pretty much the same thing: if I try to visualize “the forties,” I get vague snippets of men in hats and American GIs; if I try to visualize “the Middle Ages,” I get a map of Western Europe; if I try to visualize “the Triassic,” I get pictures of dinosaurs (probably from a book I had as a kid).

  • Jason Dick

    Interesting that you should post this today! I just got back from an interesting lecture by Julian Barbour, who definitely has some unique ideas about time, to say the least!

    A sort of overly-rough description is that he takes seriously Mach’s principle, which is basically the idea that there is no absolute distance, no absolute duration, no absolute size: every distance, every duration, every size that we measure is only relative to some other distance, duration, or size. He basically showed in his lecture that if you take these ideas seriously, you come up with General Relativity. But it also has some rather interesting implications to how we think of the nature of space and time, namely that to fully describe the local space and time you have to take into account the entire universe.

    I thought he was being a little bit short in dismissing some other ideas, but he was very interesting to listen to nonetheless (and later talk with).

  • Atrytone

    My mental image of time is much less visual than yours, John. The exception is how I picture time on the scale of one year. On that scale I visualize the calendar year as being on a sort of large clock-face in my mind with summer on the top, autumn on the right, winter on the bottom, and spring joining to summer on the left.

    For time-scales larger and smaller than that I’m much less visual in the way I think about time. For historical time-scales for instance, I associate different dates and periods with events and with one another. So if I’m thinking about something that occurred in 3,000 B.C., I might compare that date to the earliest records of Egyptian civilization a millennium before that, and to Greek civilization in the first millennium B.C. Sometimes these comparisons can take the form of a visualized time-line, but not always. And the time-line is not the same in orientation, size, color or feel each time I visualize it, as yours is.

    For times-scales shorter than a year , I sometimes picture the days of the week in order (from left to right), centered on whichever day today is, including about 2 days on either side of today. In a similar way I’ll sometimes break the day down into chunks, but having to do with plans and schedules rather than hours (first chunk of work, second chunk of work, break, third chunk of work).

  • Richard

    I find my perception of time differs depending on my reference point. If I look at an eighty year old person it is easy to simply insert this person into that exact moment and forget this person was once a child, a college student, a young father, an air force pilot, retired at 62, and so forth. And when speaking to this person I address that 80 year old man. But how does he perceive himself? What time reference is he using? Does he feel like a 30 year old stuck in an old person’s frame? Or has he assumed all of the traits of a typical 80 year old man (whatever those are)? When I examine my own life, I don’t feel like I am now 50. I am shocked how quickly the last 10 years have flown by. Is my perception of this quickness the result of raising kids and staying busy? Or is it the result of something completely unexplainable. I see time from the mentality of a young man, who has been the same since birth – I don’t feel 50, I never felt like I was 30 or 15 or 8. I am what I always have been. Time does not enter into the equation other than the fact I know I am in the time “stream” flowing with its currents at a pace I cannot control.

  • The Doctor

    “Most people assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect. Actually,
    when viewed from a non-linear, non-subjective perspective, it’s more like
    a big ball of…wibbley-wobbly, timey-wimey…stuff.”

    –Doctor Who, “Blink”

  • Charles W.

    Since I first discovered the idea of multiple universes, my “vision” of time has been variations on the theme of strings, threads, and ropes. Usually my visual timeline in 3-space consists of an entangling set of strands where one dimension is given over to time (usually the past is on the left, and the future is on the right) and the other two dimensions are for “proximity.” The strands represent things or people, depending on scale, when a group of people are together, their strands are bundled into thread. When larger groups develop they bundle to form ropes and so on. There also exists a sheath, or boundary, to separate groups that don’t interact, but those groups may influence. For example, all the people on Earth would be bound in a sheath that may be influenced by other life in the universe, without having to interact. And of course on the larger scale the universe represents a set of strands that is bounded. I have decided yet whether the universal set is closed or not.

  • Zathras

    “Cannot run out of time….there is infinite time.
    YOU are finite….Zathras is finite.
    This is wrong tool…, no, not good….never use this.”

  • daisyrose

    When I think of time I think of an hour glass and somehow I equate time with gravity – When the hour glass is almost empty the sands appear to move faster.

    I have an hour glass that I use when I work – It can be maddening because: Why should I be thinking about time – All the good things happen when I am unaware of it.

  • Barrett


    As many have pointed out or alluded to (2,9,30,37,38), this smacks of number-line synesthesia. As soon as I began reading your post I thought of this connection. Many types of scales that we imagine can be mapped into our field of spatial perception. Check out this scholarpedia reference maintained by V Ramachandran & his student David Brang (probably maintained more by the latter). The article addresses exactly this type of phenomenon.

  • Kevin

    I think that synaesthesia-type phenomena, to a much lesser degree than an actual synaesthete experiences, are more common than one might expect among the general populace. I had fairly strong color associations with letters and numbers as a child, but it’s faded as I’ve grown older.

  • Cartesian

    For Rohan (16) : “Cartesian” is in general my pseudonym because I am using the philosophy of Descartes in science.
    For Metre (28) : This is true that motion is relative. But is not it the same for change?

  • Metre

    @Cartesian 50

    Touche, “change” needs a definition. The best I can come up with is “I change, therefore I am”. Change is the universe seeking out equilibrium – it is the 2nd Law. Once it attains equilibrium, no more change, no more time (aka the “heat death”). Newton’s first law, however, tells us that the universe cannot distinguish uniform motion from the state of rest. Hence change must involve some work, F*d, hence some acceleration and exchange of energy.

  • Audun

    I don’t see time graphically in that way. When I think backwards in time, images will flicker before me. They will be images of people’s clothing, armies, kings or whatever is characteristic of that time.

    When thinking about historic time (like up to 4000 years ago), time is not really linear. I always connect a specific event to where it happened. So getting the big picture of history becomes like getting to know a city: You suddenly notice how to get from one place to another, and can locate that place more accurately on your inner map.

    Geological time and cosmological time is more linear, probably because we care less about spatial location for such events.

    If I had to put time on an axis, it would be a logarithmic axis running from left to right. The year, however, is a disk, somewhat like Steffie Lewis’ torus.

  • Jacob Russell

    A great question for poets facinated by science! Is entropy the new Mutability?

  • Adam

    I see time as a field of view like through a camera or tlelescope. When I think of the past getting there is like watching the lens zoom in quickly and then gets refined. The future is harder to focus on. Just a scene of what I imagine a certain time will be like.

    I have to say that when I was reading your description of time I got a very Sam Beckett, Quantum Leap, impression. Except, that was a ball of string not a ribbon.

  • Eric D

    The question presupposes that the reader does, in fact, have “mental images” of some sort (meaning internally generated mental experiences that seem much like sight). As in so many other ways, people differ widely in this regard. Among the “Classics in the History of Psychology” is “Statistics of Mental Imagery” (Galton, 1880; ). In a sample of descriptions of mental imagery, responses ranged from

    “I can see my breakfast table or any equally familiar thing with my mind’s eye, quite as well in all particulars as I can do if the reality is before me.”


    “My powers are zero. To my consciousness there is almost no association of memory with objective visual impressions. I recollect the breakfast table, but do not see it.”

    Regarding my mental image of time, my basic response is “Mental image? You mean, something that seems visual?” I have a sense of spatial structure when I imagine something, but nothing like an image except in dreams, or in for a moment at the edge of sleep. When I think of time intervals in an explicit way, they have a spatial quality if a physical trajectory is involved, but they are more abstract in regard to events and calendar time.

  • Anna K.

    Huh. Neat question. Never thought about it before, but now that you mention it, I see time overall kind of like a narrow sparkling moving line, but when I think about the occurrence of specific events or a specific point in time, it’s like putting a microscope on a point on that line and seeing details emerge like on a movie set or maybe in a fractal — landscapes (or spacescapes), species, or if it’s in a historical period I can picture, the ‘microscope’ shows maybe a cityscape. Though when I think of the Big Bang I think of time kind of exploding and ballooning out from it along with space — the more items I think of within space as space expands and gets more complex, the more time there is to look at. I can’t separate time from objects and events in my mind. If that makes any sense at all.

    When it comes to calendar time, I think of lists of things to do and I use daily lists. I am a tremendous list-maker; it is the only way I can figure out where I’m supposed to be when. But I don’t really think of that as related to my visualization of time, any more than I think of a grocery list as related to my experience of eating. Calendars and lists are just a way for me to keep track of things but they have little to do with mental imagery for me.

  • Matthew Ota

    My mental picture of time comes from childhood. It is like photographs on a tape or film, with the year 1901 at a 90 degree bend as it was the “Turn of the Century” to me.

  • Cartesian

    For Metre (51) : It depends in which system you define change, motion and equilibrium, this is true, because a big uniform motion could be impossible.

  • uhmmm

    Is it weird to think it’s pretty intuitive to think of the 3 spatial dimensions in terms of seconds and to switch thinking about time between s and s^2? Things are spatially some numbers of seconds away; events happened some number of seconds ago; my cellphone’s clock is ticking at one second per second; clocks in geosynchronous orbit are ticking a bit faster than a second per second; clocks in GPS satellites are ticking at different and variable numbers of seconds per second; and so forth.

    “History” is transactional — events broadcasting and observers receiving (no consciousness necessary) and in turn becoming events. These all have 4-coordinates measured in seconds.

    “The future” is probabilistic to me with events advertising themselves in bubbles whose surface expands at the speed of causality until captured by an observer; that surface is a semitransparent veil which obscures the view in the sense of limiting what can be said about the state of everything inside the bubble (and able to capture the event) by a reasoning being outside the bubble. A reasoning being closely coupled to an observer inside the bubble can only say “I can’t prove that *possible* event”, however the existence of the event might be inferred by future observations.

    In my head, the speed of causality is set against something close to a scalar field where each point is measured in s^2 that contracts or dilates the second marks on the rulers (or clocks) at that point, but this field is dynamic and unique for every observer.

    Seconds are pretty damn long, though, and not very natural.

  • Cartesian

    I think we could say that time is a Cosmic Variation.

  • Sili

    I see the synaesthesia article from the Beeb has already been referenced.

    I’m also pretty sure that quite a bit of work had been done on this concept in relation to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. I cannot recall the magic searchterms to find the discussions on LanguageLog, I’m afraid, but I’m sure you could do worse than shoot off an email to Mark Liberman and ask him nicely.

    (And then invite him for a chat on whatever service takes over after BloggingHeadsTV.)

    Oh – and not that it matters, but I have no conscious synaesthesia, myself. My image of time is straight out of the book/blackboard – a straight line running left to right – but I don’t think I actually use that image. Of course, I absolutely suck at remembering dates – in history as well as scheduling and recurring.

  • Just Learning
  • Jacob Russell

    I see blobs of jello flung against a wall in irregular sequence… then sliding down, some spaced closer some further apart, but all sliding at the same rate, creating the impression of time moving sometimes faster sometimes slower…

  • Fabio Cunctator

    To all the scientists out here, a question: do you perceive the issue of the perception of time as being relevant to your scientific practice? If yes, do you consider it to be a strictly ‘scientific’ discussion or verging towards (or even grounding itself onto) philosophical assumptions?

    I am just hinting back to a long discussion on this blog, some months ago, about the relevance of philosophy to scientists.

  • Iluzun

    As an astrologer, (I know), time is imagined as qualities that define archetypal interrelationships of psyche, not only linear quantity. The planets & their transits, to a natal chart, form angular relationships that can be interpreted as representative to certain issues/patterns/complexes being brought to the forefront in ones life. A ‘saturn return’ implies one thing, pluto crossing ones midheaven another, ect… Interestingly, astrocartography, or relocation astrology, describes the life issues, situations, challenges, or opportunities that await an individual in any given geographic location one may reside. Time imagined as psyche/soul, is an embodied transpersonal multidimensional plurality, which is qualitatively subjective within its environmental/geographic/space.

    Just thought someone may be interested….

  • Megan Brochu


    I think that this blog is very intriguing. I think that your view of time is very interesting, because I have always found the way that we as people calculate time as a little strange. I am currently a senior in high school and as a physics student, it always interests me to see ways that physics is used in real life.

    Megan Brochu

  • Iluzun

    An additional ‘scintilla’ that may be of interest to those who wish to imagine time qualitatively vs
    quantitatively, is the transpersonal/temporal nature of the ‘resolution of the opposites’ & its symbols within psyche. An experience of the ‘hierosgamos’ binds ‘heaven & earth’.

    @ that point, time stands still, & one is witnesses to ‘the eternal moment’. The direct temporal experience of a the transpersonal. The ‘symbol’ contains the psychic opposites.

    It’s a blessing & a psychic healing, in the East it is called Nirvana.

  • Baby Bones

    When I was less than three years old , I remember having many strange repetitive dreams, and these are my earliest memories. Years later, I concluded that these dreams were about what it was like before I was born, i.e., while I was still in the womb and my awareness of my own brain functions was greater than it is now.

    The most basic of these dreams consisted of random ‘sound, visual, feeling of movement images’ consisting mainly of spots and lines against pulsating bright field of vision (a more visual than auditory sensation, and the feeling of movement was more deliberately willed). The images changed every half a second. All I did was experience them, and I couldn’t “think” about them.

    The crucial difference between that experience of time and the current one I have now is that in the womb I had no understanding that the images repeated. That frequency of half a second was too fast to permit me to think about the sensation. The images were familiar, but their familiarity was not associated with their repeating. They were familiar images simply because they, like my consciousness of them, were always there.

    My current experience of time is that of a succession of events.

    I think there is a fundamental frequency of experience. It’s about half a second long, and you can’t think about it, because it is smaller than the minimum scale of thought. The minimum scale is why there is a difference between thinking about something and realizing something.

  • Iluzun

    More random thoughts.

    The Qualitative aspects of time r psyche/soul.

    The metaphorical equivalent of ‘dark matter/dark energy’ as they r ‘unconcious’ &
    to an extent ‘unknowable & unseeable’, yet pervasive. The contents can only be inferred

    For me, it’s a ‘Qualitative Universe’, or as Robert Pirsig said @ the end of
    Lila, “Good, is a noun.”

  • David Wittgendegger

    Read Kant.

  • Iluzun

    Ahh, my head is in the enlightenment w/empiricist John Locke, & the crew of Lost, but my heart is with Keats & the ‘Bright Star’ romantics.

    “Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art–
    Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night
    And watching, with eternal lids apart,
    Like nature’s patient, sleepless Eremite,
    The moving waters at their priestlike task
    Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores,
    Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask
    Of snow upon the mountains and the moors–
    No–yet still stedfast, still unchangeable,
    Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast,
    To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
    Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
    Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
    And so live ever-or else swoon to death.”

    Knowing that the ‘roots of history’ r alive 2day,
    I acknowledge both nurture & nature.

    I reject, tabula rasa, as my experience points to
    quite the contrary. A world ensouled, in which complexes
    ‘have people’.

    Jungian, transpersonal, depth, would be the school
    of thought I admire. James Hillmans, ‘poetic basis of the mind’.


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