Twenty lines about... Relativity of time

The other day I glimpsed at the calendar and … Shock. It’s February. Where is January? Gone already?

As if it was yesterday, I remember how winters would last forever, making me believe every time that it was the end of the world. (I’m a very thermophilic creature; my hell would probably look like Vikings’ – the ice desert with blowing snow). Now it’s the last month of winter, which I hardly noticed. 

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When the first shock was gone, I tried to remember my last summer. Thanks to social networks, they prove that the summer actually lasted more than one day. Yet, in my memories, it was just one warm glimpse. Is it just me, or have you also noticed that the time keeps speeding up?

I first noticed the changes in how I felt about the time a while ago. Already then 24 hours didn’t feel so anymore, and the year felt as if it was shorter than 365 days. Now, as for me, it flies even faster, so I decided to do some research.

Most of us believe that time is linear. Some agree that it’s circular and history always repeats itself. Others think it goes in spiral loops, overlapping but developing. There are more ideas about how time goes, but I was wondering if it was constant or it could actually speed up, so something that ancients agreed to be a minute was only three-quarters of that nowadays.

Apparently, it’s not just the length of time itself; it’s how we feel about it that changes over the lifetime. And there are a number of variables affecting it.

Psychological factors and emotions change how we judge the time. There was an experiment where participants were asked to talk to each other prior to telling the scientists who they want to participate in the next activity with.

Then each person stepped out of the room and scientists gave them one of the two options: they either said that nobody picked them, so they had to participate in the next activity on their own, or that everybody picked them, so to make it fair they should participate on their own. “Popular” participants reported that the following activity went by very fast, while “forsaken” ones stated that there was no end to it.

Memories and attention we pay to the world around also change how we notice the time. A new experience involving a lot of brain activity feels longer than familiar situations. Think of road trips: the way there always feels longer than the way back.

Moreover, we judge the present and the past time differently.  When we are fighting the flu, every minute feels like an hour. Yet, when we think of the time when we were sick, it feels like it was a brief period. The trick is that the routine gets coded in our brain as one experience.

Age also affects the way we feel about the time, here the proportionality matters. One year is the fifth part of your life when you are five, and of course, the summer lasts forever. And when you are 50, one year is just a little part of your life (one fiftieth), so it feels relatively short.

Furthermore, life experience is another thing that tricks us when it comes to time perception. The older we get, the more experience we gain, the fewer activities remain new to us. Everything looks simpler and easier, requires less brainwork and gets coded as routine. So weekends pass by without us even noticing.

On top, we feel that the future is a broad area where we have enough time for everything. Ask busy people to give you 10 minutes now - they won’t have time.  But ask them to give you an hour in a year, and they will happily arrange a meeting.

And finally, not only do we feel different, but we also think differently about how the time goes. If you say that the appointment is moved two days forward from Wednesday, some people will think that it’s now scheduled for Monday, while others will believe that it will take place on Friday. Some of us feel that the time comes towards them, while others feel that they move through the time.

I still don’t know if time is a permanent volume, yet this research reminded me that despite its elusiveness time is our only real limited nonrenewable treasure, so making it last longer by filling it with life makes sense.

© Copyright Estevan Mercury

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