Thursday, May 9, 2013

Time Passages

Time Passages and time perception raise a number of intriguing puzzles, including what it means to say we perceive time

Book XI of the Confessions of St. Augustine contains a long and fascinating exploration of time, and its relation to God. During the course of his exploration, Augustine raises the following conundrum: when we say that an event or interval of time is short or long, what is it that is being described as of short or long duration?

It cannot be what is past, since that has ceased to be, and what is non-existent cannot presently have any properties, such as being long. But neither can it be what is present, for the present has no duration. 

Augustine's answer to this riddle is that what we are measuring, when we measure the duration of an event or interval of time, is in the memory. From this he derives the radical conclusion that past and future exist only in the mind. Science today tells us that Time perception, just like vision, is a construction of the brain and is shockingly easy to manipulate experimentally.

Try this exercise: Go look in a mirror. Now move your eyes back and forth, so that you're looking at your left eye, then at your right eye, then at your left eye again. When your eyes shift from one position to the other, they take time to move and land on the other location. But here's the kicker: you never see your eyes move. What is happening to the time gaps during which your eyes are moving? Why do you feel as though there is no break in time while you're changing your eye position? (Remember that it's easy to detect someone else's eyes moving, so the answer cannot be that eye movements are too fast to see.)

Time and memory are tightly linked. In a critical situation, a walnut-size area of the brain called the amygdala kicks into high gear, commandeering the resources of the rest of the brain and forcing everything to attend to the situation at hand. When the amygdala gets involved, memories are laid down by a secondary memory system, providing the later flashbulb memories of post- traumatic stress disorder. So in a dire situation, your brain may lay down memories in a way that makes them "stick" better. Upon replay, the higher density of data would make the event appear to last longer. This may be why time seems to speed up as you age: you develop more compressed representations of events, and the memories to be read out are correspondingly impoverished. When you are a child, and everything is novel, the richness of the memory gives the impression of increased time passage—for example, when looking back at the end of a childhood summer.

So even though we may believe that time is slowing down for us as Boomers, it is not, our perception of time is changing and since time is a function of the brain, we can control how we view time. This I think gives us an advantage as we age as we no longer are bound to the idea of a 9 to 5 workday. So I suggest that rather than be a slave to time or the passage of time, we should use our knowledge of time and time passage to maximize our enjoyment of life and to enhance our relations with others.

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