English-articles

This is what the year actually looks like

Kjøkkenklokken Foto: Otto Fearnley 2017

A few weeks back, I asked the Norwegian public what the year looks like inside their heads. It led to a deluge of responses. Here’s a summary of more than 75 000 month placements, and nearly 40 000 questionnaire responses.

(Norwegian version – Norsk versjon)

An inner year model

Inside my head I have a visual sketch of the year.

More or less like this:

You’ve probably got one yourself. And even though there’s a vast number of models available, I now know there’s something like a 46 % chance we share the same model.

The stuff inside people’s heads

A little over a month ago, I asked our readers If the year is a circle – where’s March and December in your mind?

To be precise; I asked the Norwegian audience first, then I asked again in English. The deluge of responses was in Norwegian. The international replies were more of a trickle. A very helpful and friendly trickle, but the English article didn’t go nearly as viral internationally as its Norwegian counterpart. Which is why I’ve chosen to build this article mainly on the Norwegian data, and then cross reference with the international data.

I now have tens of thousands of glimpses from inside people’s heads. The responses have been so all over the place that I’ve chosen to talk to not one, but two professors of psychology about what the af is going on inside your heads.

Karl Halvor Teigen is Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of Oslo. This is how he explains why so many of us are giving the year physical shape:

When we come across abstract terms, we prefer to add symbols to them. It is easier to think if we manage to make things concrete.

Actually, people that are working with abstract concepts will often try to visualise, to be able to hold on to their thoughts.

Ola: Mine is a mountain-and-valley-image. Illustration: Ola Hansen / Algkalv CC BY 3.0

We’ll go deeper into the psychological aspects shortly, but let’s take a closer look at the actual numbers first:

All. Over. The. Place.

The first thing I found out, is that there is no single answer. Or five, or ten. Or a hundred.

Graphic: Henrik Lied NRKbeta

Every single line in those circles is a place where people think December and March are placed, if they were to position the months on a circle.

But even though people set off in all directions, I don’t actually believe people are making up responses. I have personally spoken to people able to argument coherently that December is at 1, 3, 5, 6, 8, 11, 12, and that the year moves both clockwise and counter-clockwise.

The Correct Answer

Still, there’s actually a correct answer of sorts here: The Year Model of the Majority.

  • 77 % place December on top (11, 12, or 1 o’clock)
  • 72% place March to the right (2, 3, 4 o’clock)
  • 75 % have models where the year can be said to move clockwise
  • 70 % consider the year an even circle

Considering all these factors together, we find that these models dominate:

Graphic: Vidar Kvien NRK

’12 – 3′ is the single most common combination. Viewed isolatedly, more people are placing December at 11 than at 12, but they are more divided on whether March is 2 or 3…

The progress of most people’s year is clockwise:

Graphic: Vidar Kvien NRK

If we combine all these dominating characteristics, we get a model with December up, and March on the right side of an even circle.

46 % of us share this view of the year.

I’ve spent some time pondering whether it’s most correct to say that December sits at 12 or 11, but have settled for just saying December is up, and not offering a higher level of precision, because:

Several readers have pointed out that it’s hard to position a 31 days long period – a 1/12 of a year – on a single point. And it’s even harder with December, which not only prompts the question of whether we’re thinking about the start, middle, or end of the month, but December also contains points like winter solstice, christmas, and the last day of the year.

An even circle?

‘The year is an even circle’ is sufficient for 70 % of us.

But 28 % have entered free text.

People’s models span from simple geometric shapes…

A straight fucking line. Because life moves ahead
Right handed man, 20-29, Eastern Norway

…to the more complex.

It stretches across the garden and terrace of the house of my grandparents 15 years ago. Counterclockwise.
Right handed man, 20-29, Eastern Norway

Bjørn: I see the year approximately like this

If we add together ovals, ellipses, and circles squashed in various ways to the group «ellipsis», this seems to be the most common alternative to the even circle – ahead of straight and crooked, vertical and horizontal lines (not counting curves, waves, and graphs).

Categorising 11 000 free text answers in a way that makes them clearly presentable is hard, so the ‘other’ bucket is necessarily fairly large.

It holds everything from ambiguous descriptions like ‘Often like a circle, sometimes as a rounded square’, to explanations that aren’t immediately recognisable as lines, ellipses etc, to the more unique models; like this one:

Kristin’s year

«Mine is elliptical (or vagina shaped, if you like). It’s moving counter-clockwise, and starts both in August/September and at New Year. It’s in colour. I had to make it rather messy, because it’s rather messy in my head as well. I’m not sure what’s in the middle of the ellipsis, there’s nothing there, really. The entire circle is suspended in thin air (or space). And this is my week:»

Kristin’s week

The years are a continous curve, where each year forms a horizontal omega. It’s just always seemed natural to me that it looks like this
Right handed man, 30-39, Western Norway

Like several others, Siv points out that December is standing out from the crowd:

Siv: ‘In a way, I’m always in the summer – I see the rest of the year at a distance’

‘Juleuka’, her Christmas week, is about the same size as March to May, which means it always comes as a shock that the Christmas holidays are over so quickly.

The most detailed drawing I’ve received is probably this one from Kristoffer:

Lots of different years

Here’s a gallery of more years you can browse:

Synesthesia weighs in as well

To me the year is a chain hung across two hooks. The left hook is Christmas eve, and New Year’s eve the rightmost one. Spring is on the way ‘down’ to the right, summer at the bottom, and autumn is on the way up towards Christmas eve again. For some reason, Winter has no place in my year curve (I have synesthesia…😊)

I ‘created’ it in my childhood, when the Christmas holiday [~1 week in Norway] was almost as long as the summer holidays [8 weeks] 🙂
Right handed woman, 40-49, Eastern Norway

So, she writes: ‘I have synesthesia’.

What is that?

Bruno Laeng, Professor of Psychology at the University of Oslo, explains:

Synesthesia is a subjective experience of a sensory stimulus that isn’t actually there.

For instance, the letter ‘A’, which is black on the screen, can also be the blue ‘A‘.

This is not a hallucination. The synesthete knows there are no additional colours there, but is experiencing them anyway.

It is not dangerous, nor a symptom of any psychiatric or neurological syndrome – people with synesthesia are not crazy. Several famous and gifted people, like Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman, are synesthetes.

Richard Feynman via GIPHY

Anyone can be affected, but people don’t suddenly turn into synesthetes. You are born with it, and it develops early, for instance when children begin reading.

We don’t know the precise neural cause of the phenomenon, but a possible explanation is that some brain connections we’re born with, but that most of us lose as the brain develops, are preserved in synesthetes.

There are both pros and cons to having synesthesia, but I believe the pros outweigh the cons.

Synesthesia can serve as a bus stop for the memory, making things easier to find for the consciousness. But sometimes the extra information can lead to a stimulus being confused with the background.

The line and the circle are common shapes for thinking about time for all of us, but synesthetes can have very complex shapes.

Because they have their own form of spatial thinking about the calendar, it can be particularly difficult for them to switch to a different form. A little like perfect pitch for musicians – it’s good to have as long as the instruments are properly tuned.

Still. I’ve asked the same question to many synesthetes I’ve met: ‘If a pill could take away these illusory experiences forever, would you take it?’ No one has said they wanted to get rid of it.

Chrichri: I find it interesting how I’m filling the concept ‘January 2018’ with old January memories, while it’s simultaneously empty and blue.

Most of us aren’t special

It’s easy to be overwhelmed by all these strange, beautiful, and fantastic models of the year. That so many people around us are hiding one of these amazing temporal constructions inside their head.

The strong individuality of the examples here can give us a feeling that everyone is carrying one of these astounding inner artworks around.

In our enthusiasm, we mustn’t forget that the majority has a simple, circular, slightly clock-like model.

Why are we like this?

Is there anything distinguishing the people having my model, compared to those who have other models?

Do we think alike in other ways as well? Are we as easily distracted, as inventive, as finicky, are we the same age, did we grow up in a particular place?

And what about the others? Those who don’t think like us? Why are they like that?

Let’s investigate, and see what patterns we can find in our questionnaire data.

To get an overview, we need to group the answers. There are several different ways of doing that.

I’ve chosen to split people’s mental models into these groups:

Graphic: Vidar Kvien NRK

The Standard Model

This group thinks December is up (11, 12, 1), places March clockwise (usually at 3), and considers the year an even circle.

Counter-Clockwise (December up)

This group positions December up (1, 12, or 11). But they’ve set March to the left (9 & 10 most common), meaning their year is rotating counter-clockwise. In this group, December is most commonly found at 1 (which is analogous to placing it at 11 for the clockwise bunch)

There are other counter-clockwise groups as well, for instance those who put December around 6, and March around 3. But the trait of having December at the bottom of the circle is probably more significant. Which is why these are in the next group:

Summer Up

This group is placing December in the lower part of the circle (5, 6, or 7). 64% of this group have a clockwise year.

Others

This is a mixed bag with around 1/4 of the responses. Everything from those who almost think like the majority to those who really stand apart.

Many share the month positions of the standard group, but their year isn’t an even circle, but rather lines, ellipses, U’s, D’s, staircases, rounded triangles, snakes, or more complex shapes. Others see the year as an even circle, but they place the months on the sides of the circle. Or they belong to the group that report they cannot place months anywhere on a circle shape when asked.

Anne: To me, the months are spread out on a straight ‘downhill’ line, so it’s just wrong to place anything at all on a circle.

What are the differences?

If want to find out if there’s anything distinguishing those who use these different models, there are several things we can look at:

Age

The age differences are negligible.

The Standard Model is slightly more popular with the age groups in the middle. The older like Summer Up a little more, and are slightly less fond of Counter-Clockwise.

Gender

Men are a tad more fond of the Standard Model.

Left handers

Around 10% report being left handed. Somebody launched a theory that there would be a higher share of Counter-clockwisers among the left handed, because some draw their circles ‘the wrong way’ (which is why our S’es, O’s, and 9’s aren’t always the prettiest). It turns out to be opposite. There are 11,4 % left handed Counter-Clockwisers VS 13.5 % right handed.

Growing up where?

The Standard Model is slightly stronger in Middle and Northern Norway.

Norway is a very long country, with the northernmost parts having sun around the clock in summer, and engulfed in eternal darkness in winter. Some comment that people growing up further north – thus having more contact with the midnight sun and it’s dark sibling the polar night – can be influenced by this. People groing up further north select the Standard Model a little more frequently.

Hva about personality traits?

I have asked people to indicate how they believe others would describe them on a few different axes:

  • creative-logical*
  • careful-reckless
  • playful-serious
  • sloppy-finicky

* some have complained these aren’t opposites, but anyone both creative and logical will of course reply 3.

You can browse people’s replies in this gallery:

There aren’t any clear cut patterns here either. But as you can see on graph #3, most of us find it slightly difficult to imagine a different model.

Think about it

There are two factors that actually make a difference, though:

I asked: ‘Have you been thinking about this topic earlier / talked to others about it?’

Around half have touched the topic before now, around half haven’t.

And this actually makes a difference:

Those who have thought about it or thought AND talked about it have the less common models more often, and those who haven’t thought about it before we asked are more prone to accept the Standard Model.

The geographical difference mentioned earlier, with people from northern parts being slightly more fond of the Standard Model is still there, whether you’ve thought about it earlier, or not.

Having been in contact with so called year wheels earlier on is also making a difference.

Half of us have been in contact with this way of representing the year.

Those who’ve been exposed to year wheels have a slight tendency towards ‘buying the Standard Model’. We may also deduce that Counter-Clockwise year wheels aren’t that common…

The geographical differences for more northern parts are persistent across the groups here as well.

So what can we conclude?

In short: There seems to be no strong demographic patterns for model choice; there’s a slightly increased chance of selecting the standard model if you’re older, and likewise for people growing up further north.

Some personality traits might to a slight degree influence what model you’d prefer; but none of the factors I’ve asked about are very strong.

If you’ve been thinking about visualisations of the year earlier, it makes a difference for model choice, ditto whether you’ve encountered a year wheel earlier.

What about Norway VS the World?

I wanted international data to check the hypothesis about a connection between year image and the sun. Unfortunately, so farI haven’t been able to collect sufficient data from people grown up further south to be able to say anything solid about this. I’ve only been able to get a few hundred responses from outside Northern Europe, most of them from the US, so it’s too rickety.

What I do have enough data to say, is that it may seem that people who’ve grown up in Oceania, or live in Australia today, are at least as happy about placing December on top as people living in Norway.

Responses from people in Northern America are fairly similar to responses from Norway, whereas people in the UK seem slightly more fond of placing the summer upwards. More detailed conclusions can unfortunately not be made.

It is tempting to conclude that people in general pragmatically select a model that works for them, and that many are inspired by another well-known time model; the clock.

But one question remains: What is released in people when they talk about this?

At the time I started digging into this, I was not prepared for all the weird and wonderful stuff I was about to discover.

Even professionals are slightly baffled, it turns out. When I meet Professor Emeritus in Psychology Karl Halvor Teigen at a café at Blindern Campus and present some of my findings for him, one of the first things he exclaims is, ‘This was more variation than I’d imagined’.

A little later he says: ‘We have a tendency to think everybody is like ourselves. Maybe we should rather think the opposite: That others see things in ways we cannot comprehend.’

Karl Halvor Teigen, Professor Emeritus of Psychology, University of Oslo Photo: Anders Hofseth NRKbeta 2017 CC BY 3.0

I’ve contacted Teigen because my friend Marie (who is a psychologist) thought he might be able to explain a few things she were wondering after witnessing a ve-e-ery long discussion about the-year-viewed-as-a-circle in an online forum.

Marie’s Wondering #1: How so many take for granted that their own way of thinking is correct, and that others probably are crazy.

What is easy to think, is what you believe to be right. If they’d thought their model was wrong, they probably would have done something about it…?

Marie’s Wondering #2: People, myself included, are getting surprisingly engaged. Maybe that tells us something about how personal this is?

The slightly liberating thing, one of the things that pleased me when I saw this question, was like: ‘Why not?’. Now you’re asking me about something that doesn’t concern politics, or the environment, or scandals, and those things you expect, that you know the media are interested in.

I guess you’d be thinking: ‘This concerns me a little more personally than just learning whether I’m leaning towards Norway should host the Olympics, or that genre of topics you’d expect being asked about’.

There’s also this factor that you’re asking as a national institution; it feels like people are actually contributing to something: Their response counts. It is proper. It’s more than a competition where you might win something. It combines playfulness, seriousness, and community.

Marie’s Wondering #3: How it seems to affect people to formulate this, something they’ve perhaps never talked to anyone about, and the amount of surprise some show. Almost some kind of insight therapy

Most of us understand the year isn’t really a wheel. But it is a sort of voyage of discovery in our inner life. In a harmless, and maybe also a more exact way than being asked questions like ‘What kind of person are you, have you got a rich, or poor inner life’, which are ghastly questions…

Most people like talking about peculiarities they have, as long as they don’t risk being publicly condemned. Your question helps them discover they have peculiarities they’ve hardly even been aware of, or that they have discussed with others with similar peculiarities – something that is private and common to humankind at once.

Everybody likes discovering that others have similar thoughts, especially in fields where they haven’t been overly public before. Which is why people often open up completely when they find someone who can understand them.

It is interesting to experience that we are similar in some ways, and have things in common with lots of people, yet simultaneously we differ on a specific level we didn’t even know existed.

Finally, he adds:

Regardless of conceptions, we are all travelling through the year, and we need to relate to seasons, months, terms, holiday plans, red-letter days, appointments, deadlines, upcoming and past dates etc, on a more or less daily basis.

Is it then any wonder that we develop a mental map of this terrain, and find it entertaining to compare our map to the maps of others? So the main reason for this overwhelming attention these images of the year are getting, is of course this big, common interest of ours in the year, and what it contains.

Everyone is a Winner

This research project started five weeks ago. It has become substantially more extensive than planned.

The thing that kicked it all off for me, was a Facebook thread; my colleague Iacob had just presented his view on the calendar:

Me: It is super fascinating that you – as an otherwise relatively rational guy – have such an eccentric perspective of the year.

Iacob: We don’t know whether it is eccentric.

Now I’ve spent my entire Christmas holiday in Excel to prove that Iacob’s model is eccentric.

He is a 12 – 9.

I’m just going to leave this here:

Thank you.

Those who belong to the majority get the pleasure of belonging to the majority, those who belong to the minority get the pleasure of being unique. It’s a win-win situation, I think.
Karl Halvor Teigen, Professor Emeritus of Psychology, University of Oslo

2 kommentarer

  1. I’ve enjoyed your article on the visualization of a year – personally I don’t have any special visualization on that. What I wondered though was, if it would be interesting to do this with years – meaning, how people unfold decades / history in their mind? Whenever I’m thinking of dates in terms of years, I have some ribbon-style arrangement of them in front of my inner eye. Perhaps there exist interesting structures too?

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