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Time Real & Imaginary

Sundial at Smithsonian

We all understand the concept of time … until we have to explain it. Time progresses at an even pace (at least in our local reality) but time is not experienced the same by everybody or in every situation.   A poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge sums it up well. I have included it at the end.  Chrissy & I got some more scientific insights at a lecture at Smithsonian by neuroscientist Richard Restak called Time & the Brain.  Some would have been obvious  to Coleridge, but it is interesting to get it from the science perspective.

Restak started by talking about “real” time, the kind we measure. Our machines can measure it in nanoseconds, but we don’t perceive it at that level. Events have to be communicated and interpreted by our brains before we can “see” them.  That takes time and in the interpretation time is experienced.  Uncommon or exciting events seem to last longer.  These are times when events seem to unfold in slow motion.  It is an artifact of memory.   When the memories are packed tightly, we have more to remember and we tend to perceive it as a longer time.

This accounts for a paradox is excitement and boredom.  Restak talked about an experiment where some people watch an exciting movie, while others languish in a waiting room. For the people in the movie, time flies by, while it drags for those in the waiting room. However, when both groups are asked to estimate the time actually spent in each activity, the people who watched the movie estimate 10% too high.    That explains why people whose life is boring say that the days drag, but the years fly by.  I recall when I worked at Medusa Cement loading bags for twelve hours a day.  Each day seemed interminable, but  when I think back about each summer it went by quickly. That is because not much changed.  This is also why you tend to remember things that happen early on a job or task, when you are learning it.

Restak explained that in memory past, present and future are not always distinct and if you cannot picture yourself in the past, you cannot project into the future.  That is a problem for people with Alzheimer’s disease.  They cannot envision the future because they cannot recall themselves in the past. There is no longer a continuous identity.   This is also a problem for people experiencing depression. They just cannot envision a brighter future, which affects their perception of the past and the present.

Different cultures perceive time differently.  An important factor in the material success of the West has been our ability to control, or at least to parcel time.  Before the industrial revolution, there was no much need for clocks to have minute hands. Processes were uncoordinated and time was “wasted”.  Even today, not everybody has the concept of time and some people don’t really think we should. 

Our time has become maybe too regimented.  Because of our devices like mobile phones and computers, we always have the possibility of doing something.   It takes away from leisure, but also from time to contemplate and think.  Thinking takes time and if you move from one event or quick decision to the other, you may never have time to understand the purposes and connections.  That is a modern curse.  I remember when the Marine at TQ explained to me that I had to embrace the suck. What that really means is to take the time you have.

Anyway, Calvin Coolidge said that you should always leave when they still want you to stay.  The Q&A lasted a bit too long, with some people just trying to demonstrate their erudition in front of a groups of strangers.   I have been having a little  problem with sciatica and I just cannot sit still for more than an hour, so we slunk out.  Always get a chair convenient to the exit.   I think we got all we could from the talk anyway.

This is the Coleridge poem:

Time Real & Imaginary

On the wide level of a mountain's head,

(I knew not where, but 'twas some faery place)

Their pinions, ostrich-like, for sails out-spread,

Two lovely children run an endless race,

A sister and a brother!

This far outstripp'd the other;

Yet ever runs she with reverted face,

And looks and listens for the boy behind:

For he, alas! is blind!

O'er rough and smooth with even step he passed,

And knows not whether he be first or last.


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