Time is an elastic dimension, maybe even more so when viewed through the lenses of fear, boredom, impatience, sadness and joy.
In Time Warped, Claudia Hammond explores this elasticity and the reasons for it.
An award-winning British broadcaster, writer and psychology lecturer, Hammond begins with the story of a hang-glider named Chuck, whose wings snapped at 4,000 feet. (He must have survived because she quotes his last few seconds of thought as he raced toward the ground at 200 kilometres an hour.) “His mind went into overdrive,” she writes. Time stretched for him, as it does for others in similar predicaments.
We also encounter a host of other characters caught in challenging temporal situations: A hostage dealing with his hours of anxious boredom; subjects taking part in fear-inducing free-fall experiments who are not able to read the numbers on specially speeded-up clocks as they plummet (giving the lie to the notion that perception is quickened by adrenalin); and an ill woman whose body temperature affects her ability to estimate time’s passage.
Hammond then takes on the neuroanatomy of time.
Looking first at our internal mind clocks and then at the subjective associations we construct around time, she relates the experience of a French spelunker who for two months voluntarily shut himself in a deep cave without any clocks. He drifted into a strange, personal sleep cycle that caused his estimate of the time to be so far off that when the time came to bring him back to the surface he thought they were 25 days early.
Most fascinating for me was her chapter on time visualization.
As a child, I had always associated days of the week with certain colours – Sunday was yellow, Friday was green, Wednesday was purple – but I was surprised to read how common my synesthetic associations were, especially in comparison with someone like Clifford Pope, who, Hammond tells us, had difficulty inserting the new millennium into his idiosyncratic visualization of time:
“The point marked by 2000 is curious. For a few years the period after 2000 looked like a short waving piece of string. It had no precise location on the wallpaper. Then in about 2005 it seemed to fix itself, and now very definitely makes another 90-degree turn and runs to the right along the edge of the table.”
Cultural and linguistic inflections also warp our perception of time.
A South American tribe, the Amondawa, have no word for time.
But they are the exception. In my own research, I discovered that “time” tops the list of the most commonly used nouns in the English language. And we spatialize time constantly. A meeting can be “long” or “short.” Or consider the question, “Did you pass the deadline or did the deadline pass you?” How you answer that says a lot about how you visualize time.
Similarly, time is warped by emotion.
We perceive unhappy events as being further back in the past than happy ones, and we have a “reminiscence bump” for things that occurred to us between the ages of 15 and 25.
A further variable is the “holiday paradox,” as Hammond calls it. A week-long holiday passes quickly, yet time spent away expands in our memory and seems have lasted much longer.
The answer, it seems, lies between prospective and retrospective time estimation.
Near the end of the book, Hammond includes a remedial summary in which she explains techniques that allow us to change our perception of time.
They include how to slow time (introduce new elements into your routines), how to speed it up (do an inventory of your surroundings), how to get more done in a shorter period of time (don’t watch TV) and how to stop worrying about the future (visualize your problems as a cloud that you let float away).
In her conclusion, Hammond offers four memorable quotes: from Soren Kierkegaard, Tennessee Williams, Albert Einstein and Marcel Proust.
It is Proust’s that seems most apropos to conclude her informative book: “The time which we have at our disposal every day is elastic; the passions that we feel expand it, those that we inspire contract it; and habit fills up what remains.”
Christopher Dewdney is a poet, mathematician and author of several books, including Soul of the World: Unlocking the Secrets of Time.