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There is a common misconception that, because humans have ten fingers, they have the innate ability of counting to ten. People generally fancy that, if a child was raised by wolves, he would come to the idea of counting just by looking at his hands. (_)
Counting is not intuitive to humans, it is a learned skill. Or to be more specific, the human brain seems to naturally count objects as "one", "two", and "many". Our numbering system and number words emerged fairly late in the evolution of human society and was due to "socioeconomic factors" (Fancy word. But I for one believe it was the tax man.)
Counting is by no means important for our survival. In fact, entire societies has come and gone without having pretty basic math skills like the ability to count to more than 3, understand abstract numbers or the concept of zero.
Our brains has a pretty vague sense of numbers. Looking at a pile, is there seven or eight apples in that bowl? Hard to say without looking close and count. A simple thing like subtracting six from eleven takes a little bit of conscious effort.
Tons of research (scientific term) shows that our brain is content with this limited scheme. One-two-many may be the innate capacity granted to us for handling plurality. Language reflects our cognitive processes and examples of one-two-many is easy to find in most all languages.
Time flies like an arrow, fruit flies like a banana
I've noticed this one-two-many scheme seems to be dominant in other mental processes also. When we think past events, we seem to group events into "now", "near past" and "distant past". While we obviously have the (learned) ability to precisely specify a point in time (Friday 18th of May, 1987 at 12:34 PM), this is not how we mentally store of even think about events. When we think of some past event, we don't seem to store it on a timeline at all. We have an emotional anchor that enables us to recall the event, but it's not tied to a timeline, it is always anchored to a person or object. Unless you spend a lot of time thinking about your past, you probably have a pretty coarse notion of when, and in what order, past events occurred.
Time, as it is expressed in the grammatical machinery of language differs from Newtonian time in not being measurable in units. […] The imprecision in the way language expresses time is related to the imprecision in the way we experience and remember it.
As Jared Spool pointed out, and most usability testers can attest to, a test subject will claim a website loads quickly if he is able to find what he is after, but will claim it loads slowly if he can't find it. The passing of time is subjective. Time flies when we have a good time, but a minute feels like an hour in a dentists chair.
If I held you any closer, I'd be on the other side of you
Ok, we have trouble with counting, we can't keep time, but we are pretty good at estimating distance, right? Sadly no, the same effect seems to govern our notion of distance. According to our language, objects seem to be mostly either here, there or far away. That our perception of time and distance is similar should not be a surprise, as we often use space as a metaphor for time. We talk about the length of time, timeframes, the past is behind us, the future in front, etc.
So I think it could be worth exploring how our one-two-many thinking brain should influence user interface design. There is nothing in our nature that dictates that a timeline must be linear. On the contrary, the further in the future or past, the coarser our sense of time is. There is nothing that suggests that we need much precision when representing spatial relations either. Our mental image of our surroundings is probably more like a tube map with nodes for relevant places and nothing like a geographic map with correct scale and distance. And designers spread out objects in nice even grids floating in space anchored to absolutely nothing, when sometimes a big uneven pile on the floor would be better and more approachable.