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10 Mysteries Of Time

Michael Thweatt

Defining time seems like a simple task: It’s hours and minutes, and the passage of one day to the next. But the ultimate nature of time is still a mystery, as revealed by all the quirks and ambiguities it presents us throughout a seemingly normal day.

10Time Dilation

satellites

Physicists consider time a fundamental dimension of the universe, but the assumption that time’s just one steady, linear flow has been convincingly overthrown by Einstein’s theory of relativity. Time, once thought to be simple and absolute, is actually influenced by speed and gravity.

Ever wonder how your phone knows you just passed a turn you were supposed to make and is now urging you to make a U-turn? The global positioning system (GPS) in your phone is linked to a network of 24 satellites that each carry precision atomic clocks. Compared to ground clocks, these satellites “lose” seven microseconds per day because they are in a slower time stream. Without constant compensation, even this extremely small time loss would accumulate rapidly, with errors as large as six miles in a day.

GPS systems are able to make these constant minute adjustments because acceleration “slows down” time, and the faster something moves, the “slower” it ages. Physicists call this effect “time dilation.” Under its influence, a space voyager could return to Earth after a 20-year voyage to find himself hundreds of years in the future. To carry time dilation to its absolute extreme—as we approach the speed of light, it is possible that time stops and immortality begins.

9Meditation And Time

meditation

In his 1890 masterpiece, The Principles of Psychology, William James observed how impossible it can be for one’s focus to be entirely in the present, because an “echo” of the past and a “foretaste” of the future lingers around each passing moment. James then challenges his readers to abandon that and live in the moment. This is, sadly, easier said than done.

Our minds typically refuse to stay in the present, constantly regretting a past that can never be undone or anxiously awaiting a future that may never arrive. What is the solution to living our lives “outside of time”? Many wise men, such as James, have suggested the same answer: It is also the core practice of Buddhism, as well as the title of one of George Harrison’s most haunting melodies: “Be Here Now.”

Meditation, which strives for mindfulness of each passing moment, has been shown to slow our perception of time down significantly, which has great potential for relieving anxiety and depression. So the next time you feel yourself being pulled ahead or behind, remember: now, be here now.

8Leapers

leap-year

Leap years occur every four years, when we add an extra day to February. This is done to compensate for Earth’s orbit around the sun not being an even number. It doesn’t actually take 365 days to spin around Sol, but roughly 365.242 days. If we didn’t add the leap day, we would lose about six hours every year, and this would add up to very inaccurate calendars as the decades unfolded.

Unfortunately, “leapers” born on February 29 can only technically celebrate birthdays once every four years. The bad news is you have to convince people the day before or after is an acceptable birthday substitute. The good news is you can count your age by counting birthdays, meaning you look 32, but are actually only eight years old.

Sadly, a leap day is often treated like it doesn’t exist. Hospital patients can’t be entered into the system, people can’t renew their driver’s licenses, and people can’t open up bank accounts, because the computers at the hospital, DMV, and bank aren’t set up to recognize February 29 as a legitimate day. Even the mighty Google gets confused—its computers don’t allow “leaper” bloggers to update profiles.

7New York Minute

nyc

Johnny Carson defined a “New York minute” as the fleeting interval between a Manhattan traffic light turning green and the guy behind you honking his horn. Clearly, the idea is that everything happens so fast in the Big Apple that time itself speeds up. Certainly a laid-back “Key West minute” would last a lot longer than one in New York.

This bit of “time perception” is where we leave the world of clocks and watches behind. Anyone who has walked out of Penn Station into the screaming, nonstop world of New York City understands this idea. The amount of input and sheer visual data has a tendency to freeze the uninitiated observer into a stumbling trance.

What creates this effect in the big city? It can be viewed as an extension of the “stopped-clock illusion.” This effect can be experienced any time you move your eyes suddenly to the second hand of an analog clock. It appears to freeze. The click between seconds is suddenly too long. This happens because we lose data during rapid eye movements, and this missing input is “inserted” after the movement, causing a perceived increase in time duration.

The same thing happens when our eyes rapidly sweep the blinking signs and buildings of New York City. What feels like five minutes in our minds has just zoomed by in the outside world in a New York minute.

6Music And Time

music

Did you ever get “lost” in a song? Time and the outside world are often forgotten while we are under the spell of music. Music has the power to create what amounts to a parallel temporal world. If the experience is intense enough, neuroscientists can see the brain’s sensory cortex take over from the self-centered parts of the cortex, causing a sense of timelessness.

In keeping with the timelessness of music, there is no precise speed notation on most “classical” music, helping maintain a subjective reality. No one knows exactly how fast or slow Mozart intended “Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor” to be played, but it was definitely not a specific number of beats per minute. Classical music tempo notations are intentionally vague, allowing the performer or conductor to interpret or feel the music: largo (very slow), larghetto (a bit faster than largo), allegretto (lively and energetic), etc.

By distorting the listener’s perception of time, music can also be a very effective behavioral manipulator. Many stores like to play new and popular music, as consumers tend to stay longer than when listening to older, familiar music. The novelty makes time appear to pass quicker, so shoppers underestimate how long they have been in the store.

In addition, studies have shown a 38 percent increase in time spent shopping when the background music is slow. That slow, relaxed tempo tends to send shoppers into a relaxed state, making them forget just how long they’ve been shopping.

5Drugs And Time

drugs

Can drugs alter our sense of time? In general, it depends on the drug and situation. Because studying time perception by administering drugs to humans is incredibly immoral, much of the evidence for drug-fueled time distortion is anecdotal.

Most notably, opium and psychedelics have been reported to greatly slow down the perceived passage of time. Thomas De Quincey, author of Confessions of an English Opium Eater, claimed that it felt like he had lived 70 years in one night. Aldous Huxley reported the same type of time dilation during his experiences with mescaline and LSD. One simplistic explanation may be that our subjective sense of time comes from a rough reckoning of thoughts per minute, and under the influence of opium and psychedelic drugs, our rate of thinking increases. This results in a compensatory slowing of perceived time.

Under normal conditions, laboratory rats demonstrate an amazingly accurate sense of time. For example, rats can quickly learn that they only get food when a lever is pressed after 13 seconds, and they become very successful in judging this time interval. However, rats dosed with methamphetamine pressed the lever too soon, indicating an accelerated time sense. When given haloperidol, they pressed the lever too late, indicating a decelerated time sense. These studies are widely accepted as experimental evidence that drugs alter time perception.

4Age And Time

biking

In Willie Nelson’s haunting classic “Funny How Time Slips Away,” the singer laments, “It’s been so long now but it seems like it was only yesterday.” Looking back on our past, we realize that events may have occurred long ago, but the vividness of their memories sometimes makes them seem much closer in time. This “telescoping” effect creates the convincing illusion that years rush by faster as we get older. In other words, “telescoping time” comes from the discrepancy between measured time and our own subjective timeline.

Another reason the years seem to go by quicker with age is simple proportion. When you are 10 years old, one year represents 10 percent of your life. When you are 60, that year represents 1.67 percent of your life. Even though it is still the same amount of time, it’s not proportionally the same.

Another reason that later years seem to “rush by” is pure familiarity. As our lives become more routine and redundant, this perceived acceleration gets stronger. Our brains tend to “skip over” things we do over and over because there’s no need to store data that we already have tucked away. Actual elapsed time is not processed during redundant events, which is why it appears to take forever to drive to a new place, but driving back home feels like it takes half as long, even though you’re going the same exact route both ways.

The solution to “lengthening” your later years is simple novelty. Be spontaneous, do something new, break down the old gray walls, and time will slow down again.

3Cyclical Time

hindu

For much of our culture, time is linear, shooting into the future like an arrow. There will never be another 21st century, or another 2014. The solar system clock recycles, but human life is a one-way trajectory.

Yet even human life is considered cyclical in some beliefs, such as Hindu reincarnation. For them, the cyclical nature of time allows us chance upon chance to come back and learn from our mistakes—it is not a one-way march to extinction. Just as the seasons return, so does our spirit, to keep trying life until we get it right, finally ending the cycle of death and rebirth by achieving enlightenment.

The idea of an oscillating universe is appealing to many. Instead of endless expansion into oblivion, the oscillating universe goes from Big Bang to Big Crunch, again and again, with no beginning or end. New hope for this theory has emerged recently, with the Baum-Frampton model of the universe speculating that dark energy could enable the oscillations, avoiding any unpleasant heat deaths which destroyed earlier “pulsation” models.

2Deep Time

universe

Large-scale time units are difficult for the human mind to grasp. Epochs and eons are just words instead of understandable concepts. The larger the time unit, the further it is removed from our everyday life, and the more unfathomable it becomes.

Strangest of all is deep time. Measured in billion-year increments, deep time is used to discuss and understand the mechanisms of cosmology, geology, and evolution. On the scale of deep time, the Big Bang is believed to have occurred 13.7 billion years ago, while Earth was formed about 4.6 billion years ago. Roughly one billion years later, simple life forms began to emerge.

Many people simply do not accept these fantastic time lines, rejecting carbon-14 and doppler shift dating techniques that are widely accepted by scientists, simply because their brains cannot fathom them. Of particular note are the so-called “New Earth Creationists” who insist Earth is 6,000 years old, as supposedly proclaimed in the Bible.

(Skepticism and questioning assumptions is the foundation of the scientific method, and thus perfectly acceptable, but we don’t have time for that discussion here.)

1Eternity

infinity

Imagine an enormous cube of granite, with each side stretching for 100 miles. One day out of every year, a sparrow comes and polishes his beak on the granite cube for one minute. When the cube is polished into nothingness, thus passes a second in eternity.

This analogy captures an enormous stretch of time but, as long as this may be, it is still finite. Eternity, meanwhile, is infinite and endless by definition. Although humans largely cannot grasp eternity, we have at least tried to symbolize it. Perhaps the two most popular symbols of eternity are the circle—which has no beginning or end—and the “lemniscate” symbol, which resembles a horizontal figure eight.

In theology, eternity has a more specific meaning: the endless “life” after death. Theological eternity believes we all have a distinct beginning in time (conception) but no actual end. It’s assumed that both consciousness and identity transcend death, so that specific souls continue to exist forever.

I am a retired professor of psychology. I now spend my time writing and creating digital art at my website.