Our perceptual and cognitive systems like to keep things simple. We describe the line drawings below as a circle and a square, even though their imagined contours consist—in reality—of discontinuous line segments. The Gestalt psychologists of the 19th and early 20th century branded this perceptual legerdemain as the Principle of Closure, by which we tend to recognize shapes and concepts as complete, even in the face of fragmentary information.
Now at the end of the year, it is tempting to seek a cognitive kind of closure: we want to close the lid on 2016, wrap it with a bow and start a fresh new year from a blank slate. Of course, it’s just an illusion, the Principle of Closure in one of its many incarnations. The end of the year is just as arbitrary as the end of the month, or the end of the week, or any other date we choose to highlight in the earth’s recurrent journey around the sun. But it feels quite different. That’s why we have lists of New Year’s resolutions, or why we start new diets or exercise regimes on Mondays rather than Thursdays. Researchers have also found that, even though we measure time in a continuous scale, we assign special meaning to idiosyncratic milestones such as entering a new decade.
What should we do about our brain’s oversimplification tendencies concerning the New Year—if anything? One strategy would be to fight our feelings of closure and rebirth as we (in truth) seamlessly move from the last day of 2016 to the first day of 2017. But that approach is likely to fail. Try as we might, the Principle of Closure is just too ingrained in our perceptual and cognitive systems. In fact, if you already have the feeling that the beginning of the year is somewhat special (hey, it only happens once a year!), you might as well decide that resistance is futile, and not just embrace the illusion, but do your best to channel it.
Later today, as midnight approaches, go full steam ahead with your end-of-the-year rituals and traditions. Throw in a few New Year’s Eve superstitions, too (just for fun, of course). Make 2016 go out with a bang. And don’t forget to write your New Year’s resolutions list. Even if it didn’t work out so well last year. Believe that tomorrow is the start of a new era. If you do, you could tilt the scale just enough this time—and trick your brain into making it so.
Here’s to new, illusory beginnings! Have a very happy 2017!