What's going on in our minds when we think of historical dates? How do we know immediately, for example, that the year 1947 is later in dme ■■■than 1923? I am certain that it's not just because we've learnt to count. Time is an abstract nouon, and in order to perceive it, we try to give it some form of spatial representation.
How do you 'see' years? I have asked people this question many times. Initial replies range from 'I don't quite get your drift' to 'How can you possibly see a year?' After further questioning, most of my subjects admit to having some form of mental landscape, some way of perceiving years in chronological order. Here are a few of their descriptions:
Mr A: I suppose I see this century as a straight line running from left to right. On my far left is the year 1901. Directly in front of me is the year I was born. To my right is this year, and at the end of the line, to my far right, is the year 2000. The nineteenth century runs in just the same way, only it is one line below. All previous centuries are progressively lower down the 'page'. The year 1 AD is a dot on the ground to my left. A thick black line separates AD from BC. All BC dates are below ground level, deep underground.
Mrs B: I am standing on a wide step, which represents the current year. In front of me are more steps going forward, up to and ending with the year 2000. Behind me are steps of a similar gradient down to the year 1900. Below these there are steeper steps representing previous centuries. At the foot of them all is the year 1 AD. Beyond that, there is a sheer drop.
Mr C: I sec the present century in terms of a graph; it's like the side of a mountain. It begins down to the left of me with the year 1900, and peaks slightly to the right with the year 2000. Beyond this, it's a misty plateau. Although it's always rising left to right, the gradient varies at different decades. There is a significant change at my birth year; it levels out dramatically for a moment. There are other subtle twists and turns, giving it an almost three-dimensional effect. In the forties, I can see puffs of smoke, commotion. The sixties I see as bright colours. The eighties is silver and fast. If I look a long way to my left, to the west, I can see the gradient continuing down through the centuries to 1 ad. That area is rather like the foothills of a mountain. What lies beyond bc is unclear.
Having read these answers, ask yourself the question again: How do you perceive time? Perhaps you have some sort of symbolic landscape for the months of the year. I have talked to people who sec individual months as part of a rising mountain, starting in the lowlands of January and asccnding to the summit of December. Others see months in terms of a clockface: January is 1 o'clock, July is 7 o'clock, and December is midnight.
And what about the week? I talked to one person who visualized each day in terms of its position in his weekly planner. Someone else saw Monday as the beginning of a conveyor belt. Each day it moved forward to the weekend, whereupon it whipped round underneath to deposit them back at Monday. My own week looks like a playground slide. At the top is a Sunday, always the first day of my week. I begin slipping down slowly through Monday and Tuesday, speeding up to Friday before coming to rest at Saturday. I then walk back round again and climb up the steps to Sunday.
I hope that you are now beginning to understand your own perceptions of time. Weeks, months, years, this century, past centuries — it would seem that our minds desperately need some sort of symbolic landscape, some spatial image, to help with the conversion of an abstract notion like that of time into something more intelligible and relevant.
A simple journey is a good method for learning historical dates because it satisfies this desire for shape and form; it gives substance and structure to the mental landscapes we have already partially creatcd for the past.
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