“Time Warped” by acclaimed writer and BBC broadcaster Claudia Hammond is a scientific exploration of the way we experience time in our minds. It explains how time stretches in space, and why it seems to slow down when we are afraid while speeding up as we get older. More importantly, it indicates ways in which we can shape our time perception and improve our system of time management. So, get ready to unlock the mysteries of mind-time and learn what makes it elastic!
The time illusion
Time dictates the way we organize our lives. We regularly adjust ourselves to a schedule: we get up, work, eat, exercise at some hour in the day. Time also plays tricks with our minds – it flies when we are having fun and drags when we are bored. The experience of time created in our minds is ambiguous. Various factors shape it – memory, concentration, emotion, and the sense we have that time is somehow rooted in space.
You’ve probably had a feeling at least once in your life that time decelerates, making events seem to last longer than possible. It might have happened when you were afraid, for example. Of course, time cannot change its flow speed. What changes is the way our mind processes time.
Time does not just distort in life-threatening situations. Experiments have confirmed that people with depression give time estimations that are usually twice as long as those who are not depressed. The same happens with children who have ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder): their experience of time appears to be different from that of other children. They have a feeling that time passes slowly, making situations where they need to wait or sit still quite challenging for them. So, mental conditions can also create the impression of time deceleration.
Time goes by slowly and slips away. Our mind can also create an illusion of time standing still. If you pay close attention to something, such as looking at the clock with a second hand that ticks, you might feel that it stopped for a while or that a second lasted longer than it should have. The question that you probably want to ask now is, “How do our brains process time?”
There is a big difference between a mind clock and a biological clock. Biological clocks only control our 24-hour circadian rhythm and have no role in the judgment of seconds, minutes, or hours. Our brain has a way of coping with the estimation of different time frames. The cerebellum (little brain) is in charge of millisecond judgments. If you puff a tiny amount of air onto someone’s eye, they will blink immediately in discomfort. The blinking demands precision, and it is the cerebellum that makes that calculation. Thanks to the frontal lobe and the basal ganglia, we judge those durations of seconds.
The part of the brain called the anterior insular cortex registers our emotional state by reading emotional moments in sequence. If the emotions are intense, when we are scared, for example, succession is faster. ‘’So the clock counts faster, making time feel slower,’’ Hammond explains. That is why time slows down when we are scared.
However, knowing where the brain processes time still doesn’t answer the question of the way it counts it. With all the developments in neuroscience, the mystery of how the brain measures time remains locked. There are several theories about how the brain estimates time, however. In the words of Hammond, ‘tThe chief area of debate concerns whether we measure time using memory, attention, a straightforward clock, a series of clocks or the everyday activity of the brain itself.’’
She also provides her own explanation of this mystery: ‘’Pulses which are already being used for other purposes are measuring time in our brains.’’ Once they speed up, we have the impression that time dilates.
Is your past left or right?
When we talk about the ability to perceive time, there is one interesting aspect to cover – our tendency to picture time in space. ‘’The ability to see time laid out in space,” writes Hammond, “is considered by many to be a type of , the condition where different senses appear to blend in the brain. The most common form of this condition involves associating colors with letters, numbers, names, or days of the week.’’
How do you see days in a week, months in a year, the whole history? Research has shown that we visualize time in various ways. Months of the year arranged in a circle, days of the week lined up as dominos one behind the other. Some people see time surrounding them ‘’like a sash around a beauty queen.’’ For some, decades or centuries have their own colors.
Interestingly, the language you speak affects the way you understand the relationship between time and space. When visualizing time, English speakers always put the past on the left and the future on the right side. On the other hand, Arabic and Hebrew speakers do the opposite. The difference lies in the way they read and write: English speakers do it from left to right, while Arabic and Hebrew speakers from right to left. Mandarin speakers, on the other hand, have more “vertical metaphors” in their language – earlier events are up, and later events are down.
The spatial pictures of time that we form allow us to hold historical knowledge in our minds. Furthermore, as Hammond emphasizes, they enable us to think about future events and time travel mentally.
Time speeds up as you get older
‘’The sensation that time speeds up as you get older is one of the biggest mysteries of the experience of time,” Hammond says. Anyone past the age of 30 will tell you that time speeds up as you get older and that Christmas seems to come more quickly every year.
Experts interpret this sensation in several ways. According to the author, a variety of events in our lives affect the way we feel about time. When we are between the age of 15 and 25, we have a lot of new experiences and build vivid memories of them. In this period, we do many things for the first time – we may get involved in a relationship for the first time, get our first jobs, or travel alone without our parents. Naturally, when we become accustomed to acquiring a large number of memories, life with fewer memories in our 30s and 40s makes us feel as though less time has passed. That is why we are surprised when we realize that another year has gone by.
Changing daily habits makes mind time elastic. If you have ever gone on a holiday, you are familiar with the illusion Hammond calls the Holiday Paradox. Time flies when you are away from home, but once you come back, it feels as if you were absent for ages. As in the previous case, the number of memories we created in the short period distorts our perception of time. Once we come back home, we judge the time spent on vacation according to the number of new experiences we had. From the perspective of our regular life, with substantially fewer new events, we feel the holiday was longer than it was.
When we travel mentally to the future, we use old memories to create a picture of the events to come. Let’s say you are invited to a wedding next month. You will imagine this event in great detail – perhaps the interior of the location, the look of the bride and groom, and the other guests. To create this picture, you use your memories, probably those connected with previous weddings you attended. That is why people with damaged memory such as those who have amnesia, for example, find it hard to travel mentally to the future. Babies also live only in the present, and are unable to picture upcoming events until the age of three or four.
People’s ability to imagine future events sets them apart from other animals. However, scientists speculate whether some animals might have this ability. A bird called the western scrub-jay comes closest to having the human concept of past and future. If scrub-jays experience a shortage of food, they learn to gather food and hide it for later. Not only do they remember where they hid it, but they also remember how much time has passed since they created the cache. They even re-cache it if they know other birds are observing them while collecting their food supplies. ‘’This suggests they are utilizing their experience rather than relying on instinct alone to plan for the future,” says Hammond.
People are more prone to think about events upcoming in their lives than to think about the past or present. Mental time travel into the future is extremely important for us. ‘’It affects our judgments, our emotional states, and the decisions we make,’’ writes Hammond.
Changing our relationship with time
The ability to perceive time gives us advantages, but can also cause troubles. We might be unfulfilled because years pass by quickly, we may worry about the future too much, or perhaps feel that we lack the time required to do something. The knowledge of the way we understand time helps us deal with these problems.
- Problem 1: time is speeding up. Try recreating a holiday feeling occasionally. Change your routines from time to time, and create new memories by doing something different in your free time.
- Problem 2: worrying too much about the future. Try dedicating one part of your day to doing nothing but worrying about your future. After that, visualize putting your worries in a box and close its lid. Open it the next day at the same time.
- Problem 3: too much to do, too little time. Set yourself deadlines for your tasks. Organize priorities and give your time only to those who deserve it.
- Problem 4: failing to plan ahead. If you are not good at completing your tasks, plan in detail how to carry them out and picture yourself doing them.
- Problem 5: making time go faster. When you are bored, time is slow. First, avoid checking your watch. Secondly, engage your mind by doing something new and creative.
- Problem 6: a poor memory of the past. If you are bad at memorizing important historical dates, link them with significant moments from your life.
- Problem 7: trying to live in the present. If you want to set aside worries and regrets about the future and past, do something that focuses your attention.
- Problem 8: predicting how you will feel in the future. It’s hard to make predictions about what our feelings will be in the far future. Think about how you would feel if the event happened much sooner. You will likely feel the same in the distant future.
The book ‘’Time Warped’’ teaches us that time has another dimension – the one that originates in our mind. As it creates numerous illusions, our mind time has immense power over us. Hammond explains how one might conquer this power and use it to our advantage. Although there are still many mysteries of time perception, this book certainly unlocked this one – time does not speed up as we get older. There is plenty of time, if you know how to use it well.Leave a comment