Biology / The Student

Psychology of time travel

clock faces travel

Credit: Alan Cleaver

We all time travel. By rising from our beds in the morning and returning to them at night, we have spent a day travelling in the present from the past into the future. When we start thinking about it too hard, it becomes difficult to wrap our heads around- is time moving through us? Is the future moving towards us or are we moving through the future, turning it into the past? Maybe we’re all zipping around on separate timelines that converge into ‘a big ball of wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff’ [The Doctor, Time Lord].

When thinking about events that have happened and those to come, people often wrap time into a metaphorical distance that resembles spatial distance; they imagine themselves moving through time as a train moves through the countryside. This unconscious connection can be affected by linked experiences, as apparently people who have had recent experiences of travelling great spatial distances (eg. In a train or aeroplane) are more likely to envision themselves as moving towards the future rather than the future moving towards themselves. This can also be manipulated- scientists showed daydreaming subjects illusions of motion through space found that the direction of the illusion influenced the direction of mental time travel; backwards motion sent the mind into its memories and forwards motion propelled it into future-orientated thoughts.

However, our mental timeline isn’t as concrete and predictable as actual distance, and our perceptions have formed strange tricks around it. Recently a group of researchers, led by Eugene Caruso of the University of Chicago, published a study saying that as we are constantly moving in our time-travelling journey, a future event is perceived through diminishing distance and therefore seems closer than a past event that is equally far away. A further wonder into the relationship between the mind and space is time-space synaesthesia. Synaesthesia is typically a phenomenon when the senses combine and various experiences are perceived with imagined sensations (for example, hearing certain notes or particular pieces of music when observing certain colours, or some sounds or emotions triggering the visualisation of individually associated colours). Time-space synaesthesia is when individuals perceive units of time (such as hours, days or months) as occupying specific locations in space around their body. One individual with time-space synaesthesia described their time as “laid out in a linear stack in front of me, like I am walking along a bookshelf. I can’t see the hour (or book, in this analogy… it’s difficult to describe) I’m in, as I am on top of it, but I can see the weekend ahead (it’s usually brighter than the rest of the week!), and then the next few weeks, months etc. The further forward I look, the harder it is to see, and there is less detail. When I look behind me, into the past, it is like the bookshelf curves around in a huge circle- like I’m at three o’clock and last August is at six. The longer into the past I look the closer the years move together and the smaller they seem.”

Many accounts of time-space synaesthesia seem to be describing certain periods of time in circle form, which one research paper described as “The months of the year are usually perceived as ovals, and they as often follow one another in a reverse direction to those of the figures in a clock, as in the same direction. It is a common peculiarity that the months do not occupy equal spaces, but those that are most important to the child extend more widely than the rest. There are many varieties as the topmost month; it is by no means always January.”

Various experiments have been done to see if such time-space visualisation gives these individuals an advantage when it comes to organising their time, and a study carried out by researchers at the University of British Columbia and the University of Waterloo concluded that “the spatial forms experienced by time–space synaesthetes improve their ability to manipulate time-based information. In other words, synaesthesia may provide these individuals with a specific cognitive advantage.”

How do you think about time? One of the biggest difficulties for researchers studying synaesthesia is that many people have no idea that their perceptions are abnormal- they may not even be consciously aware of them. Perhaps you have a hidden ability to weave your senses… it could come in useful when in planning your studying.

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