On her first morning in Toronto last month, British writer and broadcaster Claudia Hammond went for a jog. The route she chose took her past a poster for The Clock, a contemporary art installation by Christian Marclay, on exhibit at the Power Plant. She had heard about the show when it was mounted in London, where she lives, but missed it. She planned to see it here.
Mr. Marclay’s unconventional piece is a continuous, 24-hour video loop during which, for every minute of real time, the viewer sees clips from old films and TV shows – shots of wall clocks, clock towers, wristwatches, sundials, bomb timers, etc. – referencing that precise moment.
Ms. Hammond’s interest was not exactly casual. Her latest book, Time Warped: Unlocking the Mysteries of Time Perception, is a breezy survey of life’s single most precious resource, and the most commonly used noun in the English language.
And as a BBC broadcaster – she hosts separate programs on psychology and health – she is acutely aware of time’s passage. “I have gotten very used to what 30 seconds and what a minute is,” she told a previous interviewer.
Of course, she was right on time for our appointment.
Time Warped, she says, grew organically from her first book, Emotional Rollercoaster, published in 2005. “When I was researching that book, I noticed that a lot of our emotions are somehow connected to time,” moments we remember fondly or with embarrassment, or future events we look forward to or dread. “I was particularly interested in perceptions about the future and was originally just going to write about that. But time is – or feels – seamless, so it made sense to tackle the broader subject.”
Although an obsession with time is deeply embedded in contemporary Western cultures, it isn’t universal. In fact, the language of at least one Amazonian tribe, the Amondawa, has no word for time, or month, tomorrow or yesterday. Not surprisingly, perhaps, its hunter-gatherer society also functions without clocks or fixed calendars.
It is a fear of death, Ms. Hammond suggests, that underpins our time fixation. “We’re obsessed with time, and how fast time passes, because we know it’s finite,” she says. “We know that none of these minutes can be repeated, so we try not to waste them. But you can’t live every day as if it were your last. If you did, you’d go slightly mad.”
Indeed, if you cared only about this moment and the next, you would never plan a picnic or a holiday, because you would be robbing from the present to pay for the future. And you would avoid mundane, emotionally unrewarding tasks, such as washing clothes or filling up the car with gas, which would appear to “waste” time.
“We also know that time will carry on without us, when we’re gone,” Ms. Hammond adds, “and that’s a hard concept to comprehend. It should end when we end.” And while we effectively own all of Time Past, “all of the centuries and civilizations before us, we can never know or own the future.”
But if the passage of time gnaws at me, shouldn’t I – in theory – feel good when time “slows down,” such as when I stand in line waiting, impatiently, for a bank teller?
“That’s what’s fascinating,” she says. “We only want certain bits of time to be long.” It depends on the situation: “When you’re stuck at a railway station waiting for an overdue train, that’s really annoying.”
And it depends on perception: “Physicists may argue about whether time is simply an illusion, but what definitely exists is our perception of time. If I said, ‘You’re going to get 20 minutes to rest in the middle of your workday,’ you’d feel good about that, right? But when it’s forced on us, we don’t want it.”
Studies show that time tends to move twice as slowly for the disadvantaged – people who are depressed, lonely, rejected or suicidal. In a sense, then, if time feels as though it is moving quickly, it’s probably a sign that you are active, engaged and largely fulfilled, except for your regret at not having enough time to do more. A busy life, moreover, is more apt to feel long, rather than short, when the time comes to look back on it.
The same psychological tactic can apply to vacations and weekends. “If you pack your holidays with activities, then, when it’s over, you’ll feel that time passed slowly and in a satisfying way,” she says. “The trouble is, you have to trade rest for that.”
One strategy to combat those teeth-clenching moments of blood-pressure elevation at the bank or train station is to bring a good book or to meditate, Ms. Hammond suggests – if you can. “It’s hard, because you have to ignore everyone else around you and they continue to be annoyed. But you can effectively take yourself ‘out’ of time by taking a good book or being mindful.”
Ms. Hammond, 41, says you can roughly calculate how important time is to a particular city by measuring three things – how quickly you can buy a postage stamp; whether its public clocks run “on time”; and how much time it takes for pedestrians to walk 100 metres. New York, London and other major urban centres score high on such surveys.
She is not sure where Toronto would rank. On her first evening, she went for a walk in the centre of town and “was surprised how few people there were on the streets after 8 p.m.”
Raised in Bedfordshire, the daughter of lawyers who never practised law – her father became a naturalist writer, her mother an artist – Ms. Hammond expressed an early interest in radio. For four years from the age of 14, she hosted what she calls “a terrible weekly hospital program called Claudia’s Sunday Requests,” playing patients’ favourite songs.
When she made rounds to gather the requests, she discovered something unusual – patients repeatedly would confide details of their medical conditions that they were somehow afraid to tell nurses and physicians. “This got me interested in psychology: Why do people think and behave the way they do? Why tell things to a 14-year-old stranger that you wouldn’t tell to the people who actually needed to know?”
Ironically, her adolescent hospital experience would perfectly mirror the career tracks she subsequently pursued – psychology, health and broadcasting. After earning her master’s degree in health psychology, she joined BBC’s Radio 5 as a journalist, and gradually gravitated to her specialties.
What impact has her research had on her own attitudes toward time? “I worry less about time passing than I once did,” she says. “I now know it’s happening and I know why it’s happening, in the mind, and that it will continue to happen. So sometimes, on weekends, I don’t feel the need to do everything. I just rest and don’t feel guilty about it.
“I’m conscious that time is passing too quickly, but it no longer bothers me.”
Take this quiz
Test your perception of time: Name the month and year in which the following events occurred. (Answers at bottom.)
1. Murder acquittal of O.J. Simpson
2. Death of Diana, Princess of Wales
3. Killing of John Lennon
4. Hurricane Katrina
5. First Gulf War, U.S. vs. Iraq
6. Start of SARS epidemic
Most people, author Claudia Hammond says, will incorrectly guess the date, and probably think the event as having occurred more recently than it did, because we see time as speeding up as we get older. It’s known as forward telescoping: Just as things seen through a telescope seem closer than they are, events perceived in memory often appear closer in time. The older we get, the more pronounced that warping sensation becomes.
Answers: 1. October, 1995. 2. August, 1997. 3. December, 1980. August, 2005. 5, January, 1991. 6. November, 2002.