One of the weirder things about human being’s perception of time is that our subjective clocks are so off. A day spent in our dreary cubicles can seem to crawl like an Amazonian sloth, while our weekends pass by as fast as a chameleon’s tongue . Most dreadful of all, once we pass into middle age, time seems to transform itself from a lumbering steam train heaving us through clearly delineated seasons and years to a Japanese bullet unstoppably hurdling us towards death with decades passing us by in a blurr.
Wondering about time is a habit of the middle aged, as sure a sign of having passed the clock- blind golden age of youth as the proverbial convertible or Harley. If my soon to be 93 year old grandmother is any indication, the old, like the young, aren’t much taken aback by the speed of time’s passage. Instead, time seems to take on the viscosity of New England molasses, the days gently flowing down life’s drain.
Up until now, I didn’t think there might be any empirical evidence to back up such colloquial observations, just the anecdotes passed around the holiday dinner table like turkey stuffing and cranberry sauce: “Can you believe it’s almost Christmas again?”, “Where did the year go?” Lucky for me I now know what happened to time, or how I’ve been confuddled all this time into thinking something had happened to it. I know because I’ve read the psychologist and BBC science broadcaster, Claudia Hammond’s excellent little book on the psychology of time called: Time Warped: Unlocking the Mysteries of Time Perception.
If you’ve ever asked yourself why time seems to crawl when you’re watching the clock and want it to go faster, or why time appears to speed up in the face of an event you’re dreading like a speech, this is the book for you. But Hammond’s Time Warped goes much deeper than that and exposes us to the reality of what it would be like if some of our common dreams about controlling time actually came true. If we could indeed have “perfect memory” or, as everyone keeps reminding us to, “live in the present”. In addition to all that, the nature of our ambiguous relationship with time she reveals raises interesting questions for those hoping we wrestle from nature a great deal more of it.
Hammond doesn’t really discuss the physics of time, or more clearly, the fact that much of modern physics views time as an illusion akin to past imaginary entities like the ether or the phlogiston. The fact that something so essential to our human self-understanding is considered by the bedrock of human sciences to be a brain induced mirage has led to a rebellion of at least one prominent physicists, Lee Smolin, but he’s almost a lone voice in the quest to restore time. Nor is Hammond all that interested in the philosophy of time, its history or what time actually is. You won’t find here any detailed discussion of how to define time, it’s more like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of pornography: “you know it when you see it.” Hammond is, though, on firm scientific ground discussing her main subject, the human perception of time, which, whatever it’s underlying reality or unreality, we find it nearly impossible to live without.
Evolution might have kept things simple and given the human brain just one clock, a steady Bigben of a thing to accurately mark the time. Instead, Hammond draws our attention to the fact that we seem to have multiple clocks within us all running at once.
We seem to be extremely good at gauging the passage of seconds or minutes without counting. We also have a twenty four- hour clock that runs with the same length but independent of the alternating light and darkness of our spinning earth as Hammond shows was proven by Michel Stiffre who, in the name of science and youthful stupidity, (he was 23) braved two months in a dark cave meticulously recording his bodily rhythms. What Stiffre proved is that, sun or no sun, our bodies follow twenty-four hour cycles. The turning of the earth has bored its traces deep into us, which we fight against using the miracle of electric lights, and if the popularity of sleeping pills are any indication, so often lose.
For some of us, there seems to be an inbuilt ability and need to see longer stretches of time spatially in the form of ovals, circles, or zig-zags, rather than the linear timelines one sees in history books. One day, not long before I read Hammond’s book, I found myself scribbling thinking about how far into the future my great-grandchildren would live, should my now small daughters and their children ever have children of their own.
For whatever reason, I didn’t draw out the decades as blocks of a line but like a set of steps. I thought nothing of it until I read Time Warped and saw that this was a common way for people to picture decades, though many do so in three dimensions, rather than my paltry two. Some people also associate days with color- a kind of synesthesia that isn’t just playful imagination, but is often stable across an individual’s life.
There is no real way to talk about how human beings experience time without discussing memory. What I found mind-blowing about Time Warped was just how many of what we consider the flaws of our memory end up being ambiguities we would be better off not having resolved.
Take the fact that our memories are so fallible and incomplete. One would think that things would be so much better if our brains could record everything and have it for playback on a sort of neuronal blu- ray. For certain situations like criminal trials this would solve a whole host of problems, but elsewhere, we should watch what we wish for. As Hammond shows, there are people who can remember every piece of minutia, down to the socks they wore on a particular day, decades earlier, but a moment’s reflection leads to the conclusion that such natural born mnemonic prodigies fail to dominate creative fields, the sciences, or anything else, and such was the case long before we had Google to remember things for us.
There are people who believe that the path to ensuring they are not unraveled by the flow of time is to record and document everything about themselves and all of their experiences. Digital technology has doubtless made such a quest easier, but Hammond leads us to wonder whether or not the effort to record our every action and keystroke is quixotic. Who will actually take the time to look at all this stuff? How many times, she asks, have any of us sat down to watch our wedding video?
People obsessed with recording every detail of their lives are very likely motivated by the idea that it is their memories that make them who they are. Part of our deep fear of developing Alzheimer’s probably originates in this idea that the loss of our memories would constitute the loss of our self. Yet somehow the loss of memories (and the damage of Alzheimer’s runs much deeper than the loss of memories) does not seem to rob those who experience such losses of what other recognize as their long standing personality.
Strangely, our not too reliable memories, when combined with our ability to mentally time-travel into the past, Hammond believes, gives rise to our ability to imagine futures which are not. It allows us to mix and match different scenes from our memory to come up with whole new ones we anticipate will happen, or even ones that could never happen.
The idea that our imagination might owe its existence to our faulty memory put me in mind of the recent findings of Laurie Santos of the Comparative Cognition Laboratory at Yale. Santos has shown that human beings can be less not more rational than animals when it comes to certain tasks due to our proclivity for imitation. Monkeys will solve a puzzle by themselves and aren’t thrown off by other monkeys doing something different, whereas a human being will copy a wrong procedure done by another human being even when able to independently work the puzzle out. Santos speculates that such irrationality may give us the plasticity necessary to innovate even if much of this innovation tends not to work. It seems it is our flaws rather than our superiority that have so favored us above our animal kin.
What, though, of the big problem, the one we all face- the frightening speed through which we are running through our short lives? There is, it seems, some wisdom in the adage that the best way to approach time is in focusing on the present, even if you’re like me and watching another TED talk on the subject by Pico Iyer is enough to make you hurl. If the future is a realm of anxiety and the past a realm of regret, as long as one is not in pain, the present moment is a sort of refuge. Hammond believes that thinking about the future, even if we so often get it wrong by, for instance, thinking that our future self will have more time, money, or will-power, is the default mode of the brain.
Any meditative tradition worth its salt tries to free us from this future obsessed mode and connect us more fully with the present moment of our existence, our breath, its rhythms, the people we care about. There are ways we can achieve this focus on the present without mediation, but they often involve contemplation of our own impending death, which is why soldiers amid the suffering of war and the terminally ill or the very old like my Nanna can often unhitch themselves from the train pulling our thinking off to the future.
Focusing on the present is one way to not only slow the pace of time, but to infuse the short time we have here with the meaning it deserves. Knowing that my small children will outgrow my silliness is the best way I have found to appreciate their laughter now.
Present focus does not, however, solve the central paradox of time for the middle aged, namely, why it seems to move so much faster as we get older, for it is doubtful we were all that more capable of savoring the moment as teenagers than adults. Our commonsense explanation of time speeding up as we age typically has to do with proportionality as in “a year for a five year old is 1/5 of their life, but for a forty year old it is merely 1/40.” Hammond shows this proportionality theory to to wrong on its face, for, if it were true, the days for a middle aged person would be quite literally buzzing by in comparison to the days of their younger selves.
Only a moment’s reflection should show us that the proportionality theory for time’s seeming quickening as we age can’t be true. Think back to your school days waiting impatiently for the 3:00 pm bell to ring: was it really much longer than the time you spend now stuck to your chair in some meaningless business meeting? There are some difference in the gauging of how much time has passed between the young and the old, yet these are nowhere near large enough to explain the differences in the subjective experiences of how fast time is passing between those two groups. So if proportionality theory doesn’t explaining the speeding up of time for the middle aged- what does?
When thinking about duration, the thing we need to keep in mind is, as the work of Daniel Kahneman has shown, we have not one but two “selves” an experiencing self and a remembering self. Having two selves does a number on our ability to make decisions with our future in mind. The experiencing self wants us to eat the cookie now, because it’s the remembering self that will regret it later. It also skews our sense of the past.
Our sense of the duration of time is experienced differently by these two separate selves.Waiting in a long line feels like forever when you’re there, but unless something particularly interesting happened during your wait, the remembered experience feels like it happened in a blink of an eye. Yet, a wonderful or frightening experience, like a first kiss or a car accident, though it seems to fly by while we’re in it, usually cuts its groves deep enough into our memory that when we reflect upon it it seems to have taken a very long time to unfold.
Hammond’s explanation for why youth seems stretched out in time compared to middle age is what she calls the “reminiscence bump” and the “holiday paradox”. Adolescence and young adulthood are filled with so many firsts they leave a deep impression on our memory and this “thickness” of memory leads our remembering self to conclude time must have been going more slowly back in the heady days of our youth- the reminiscence bump . If you want to make your middle age days seem longer, then you need to fill them up with exciting and new things, which is the reason, Hammond speculates, that holidays full of new experiences seem fast when we’re in them, but to be stretched out on reflection- the holiday paradox. She wonders, however, whether the better option is just not to worry so much about time’s speed and rest when we need it rather than constantly chase after new memories.
Given the interest of the audience here in extending the human lifespan I wonder what the implications of such discovers regarding time on that project might be? A comedy could certainly be written in which we have doubled the length of human life, and end up also doubling all those things we now find banal about time. Would human beings who lived well beyond their hundreds be subject to meetings that stretched out for days and weeks? Would traffic jams in which you spent a week in your car be normal?
Perhaps we might even want to focus on our ability to manipulate our sense of time’s duration as an easier path towards a sort of longevity. Imagine a world where love affairs could stretch out centuries and pain and boredom are reduced to a blink, or a future that has “time retreats” (like today’s religious retreats) where one goes away for a week that has been neurologically altered to having felt like it was decades or longer. We might use the same sorts of time manipulation to punish people for heinous crimes so that a 600 year sentence actually means something. One might object that such induced experiences of slow time aren’t real, but then again neither are most versions of digital immortality, or even, as Hammond showed us, our subjective experience of time itself.
All of this talk of manipulating our sense of time as a road to longevity is just playful speculation on my part. What should be clear is that any move towards changing the human body so that it lives much longer than it does now is probably also going to have to grapple with and transform our psychological notions of time and the society we have built around our strange capacity to warp it.