I tend to think of myself having a good sense of direction. While I am not ashamed to admit I use a sat nav when driving, once I have driven someone for the first time, I can usually find my way back again without the need for the sat nav a second time. And when I am not in the car, a quick look at Google Maps will usually be enough for me to find a location even in an unknown city. I get lost from time to time, I’m not claiming to be perfect, but more often than not I find myself where I want to be without the need for a detour.
One of the things I think helps me to navigate, is a general sense of the cardinal directions, or put more simply, knowing which way is north.
I have mentioned already that a quick look at a map can usually help me navigate, and knowing which way is north certainly helps this. I am not claiming I can point north to a fraction of a degree, but I can find north (and subsequent compass points) closely enough to make it easy to navigate. Typically the only time I am unsure of the direction of north is inside large buildings with winding corridors and stairs or on underground public transport, at which point I can lose north until I can find myself outside or at a window.
This ability to find north is a particularly useful one, as it helps the way I see and understand the world in my head. When I use the term World View in the title, I am talking about my mental understanding of the world around me, rather than the more traditional use of the term to consider someone’s political and social views. In this post I thought it would be interesting to consider how we can understand the world mentally, using myself as the example, specifically considering my understanding of my location in space, my location in time, and my relationship to the rest of humanity and the wider Universe.
Where am I?
Whenever I mentally consider my position in space, I see a bird’s-eye view of my location. Having told my wife this a couple of years ago to incredulous looks, I suspect some of you reading this now will find it strange, but I literally mean I see a map-like representation of the world around me and my relationship to objects in space. As I write this I am laying on my living room floor (don’t ask) and despite the bedroom and loft space above me, and the rest of the house around me, if I try to picture my location in space, I can see the street outside in plan, with my house and the neighbours, and if I mentally zoom out, more and more streets of my local area appear. Zoom out far enough, and I can see myself in relation to the city of Leeds, the Yorkshire region, the UK and even the world (though that needs time to be able to think in three dimensions, something which is a challenge, and maybe a discussion point for another post).
This view of the world as if seen from above is I suspect one of the reasons I find my way so easily, and can quickly navigate with a glance at a map. It also explains in part why knowing which way is north can be particularly useful. My mental map will always be orientated north-south, regardless of which direction I am actually looking (almost due west currently, in case you were interested.
Imagining the world from above can have some interesting, and unusual, consequences for me. The most obvious I have noted over the years is when I am on holiday abroad, typically on a city break. Generally I like to avoid using public transport when abroad, preferring to get around on foot (partly to burn off some of the extra treats I am eating). This is a great way to see the place, rather than the inside of a train or cramped bus, but also means I do not have to navigate transport systems in an unfamiliar language.
Unfortunately, seeing the world as a map mentally and travelling places on foot do not always mix as well as you would imagine. I almost consistently underestimate distance, thinking something is a more reasonable walking distance than it actually is, and have been known to traipse across whole cities in search of the next sight. If I did not see the world as a map mentally, I am not sure I would be quite as prepared to make what to me feels like a short afternoon stroll.
As I hinted at in the introduction, seeing the world as a map can also lead to significant disorientation if I lose my understanding of north. Actual maps become a challenge to read without the compass pointing to north, and my mental map is much the same. Coming out of a Tube station in London for the first time can leave me wandering aimlessly in circles for a few minutes while I try and readjust and locate myself in the world. I am sure I am not alone in this, but it certainly feels more disorientating for me than other people let on when leaving the station. Of course once I have visited the station once and worked out the exits and how they fit with the map in my mind, it is significantly easier for me to get around on subsequent visits.
When am I?
A couple of months ago, I wrote a post titled Perspective which gave some thoughts on the vastness of the Universe (both in space and time) and our place in it. In the post, I considered the enormity of time to develop a perspective on some of the challenges we may be facing in life, but it is a useful to have in mind as we consider how we mentally picture time.
Commonly, people talk about a timeline when considering temporal relationships between events. History textbooks certainly remain fans, placing events in the correct order is an important first step to developing an understanding of their significance. Partly I suspect because of my love of history as a child, and having read one too many history tomes, when I consider time I see it as an eternal timeline running from the past in the far distance ahead of me, to the present being closer by, while the future is behind me, something I cannot see as the future has not happened yet.
Immediately this might strike you as odd. I suspect it is more typical to see the future as ahead metaphorically, and the past behind us, but for me it is exactly reversed. I think it stems from being able to visualise what the past could have looked like, at least better than I am able to visualise the future. Because running along this timeline in my mind are images, and sometimes mental videos, which correspond to events both in my past, but going back hundreds and thousands of years further as well (though modern history is clearer and usually more colourful in my mind than the more ancient events).
This view of the history of time is along the lines of the block universe, the idea that every point in time exists, and we are experiencing the movie of time moving forwards through this existence. From a scientific perspective, this view is not entirely compatible with the likes of Special and General Relativity, but to help me conceptualise and organise events in my head, it certainly suits me.
How I picture (or more accurately do not picture) the future is probably the most interesting here. As you will see in the post on Perspective, I can certainly envisage events taking place in the future, though I was careful to avoid making predictions about the near future as things are too (scientifically) chaotic to get close to what actually happens (as someone whose name I cannot recall once said, if you are going to predict anything, make sure it happens after you are dead). Yet when it comes to viewing time in my mind, it is a blank. Can I imagine what the inauguration of Joe Biden will look like in January? In a fashion. Can I then include it in my view of time? No.
You might think this is a depressing state of affairs. When imagine time, I see the expanse of history, much of which was people being shitty to each other, while not being able to see a future where things might get a little better. But I see it differently, I see instead near infinite possibility. The past is done, interesting to study but done. The future can be almost anything, and that is much more exciting.
What is going on?
You might think a mental understanding of my place in time and space is enough to be getting along with, but there is a third important factor to consider; my relationship with other people. Yes, people exist in time and space, but we have created such a complex web of interactions amongst ourselves that it is not enough to simply think of ourselves in spacetime, but also as a part of society.
It was thinking about how I mentally envisaged my place in society which led to this blog post in the first place. More accurately, I was thinking about people before modern communication technology and how they would see their place in the world. I imagined a peasant farmer at the end of the first millennium, having some knowledge of Europe and the Middle East, but little concrete information outside their own village. Or consider a hunter-gatherer in the Iron Age, with even less information about the world at large. It is quite possible they knew nothing of life beyond their immediate family.
For me to appreciate this position is as alien as to consider, well how an alien might see the world. This is because in my mental view of myself in society, I consider myself having an overview of everything which is happening now.
What I mean by this, is in my internal view of the world I consider myself having an understanding of what is taking place, well everywhere else. This is of course a ludicrous statement, how could I possible understand everything which is taking place in the world, but it is still the feeling I have when I think of the world. I think this stems from the access we have to media, travel and near endless information about the world.
For example, I have never been to China, but I have seen enough pictures and videos of China, and know just enough information about the country to convince myself I know what is happening there. Couple this with news reports of important events (did someone say global pandemic) and China in my mind appears like a lit up space on the map. Contrast this with North Korea, another country I have not visited, but for which images and footage is scarce. North Korea for me is a dark space on the map. I have little understanding of life there, and feel less connected as a result.
By understanding just the bare bones of political and social currents, and having access to information at the click of a button, I am left with a feeling of connectedness to society, and in some ways control.
Who am I?
Ultimately, control and order is what this whole post has been about, having an element of control or order to life. By knowing where I fit in time and space and society, it makes understanding the world that little bit easier, and gives a greater sense of control. As an individual I have little control over the course of local, let alone global, events, but that does not stop me telling myself I am in control. The mind can be funny like that, and while it might not be the objective truth, sometimes believing a little bit of fantasy can be the difference between happiness and a feeling of helplessness.