Time keeps on a ticking

Calgary Herald, Jan 6. 2018: 2018, already?

How did that happen? How did it get to be 2018 all of a sudden? Wasn’t it 2013 about 10 minutes ago? And 1999 about 15 minutes before that?

I do look forward to diving headlong into the shiny new year and breaking the same old resolutions I do every year, but first I have to get my head around the fact that 2017 came and went in a flash. Just like the year before.

It’s not just us average folk who are bewildered by the passage of time and struggle to put the right date on cheques that cover the first parking tickets of the year. Scientists, too, are trying to figure out how we process time and why it is that 52 weeks can whip by in an instant while red lights and the Trump presidency take an eternity.

One neuroscientist in the field fell off a roof as a kid and remembers the seconds stretching out as he dropped to the ground, landing on his face. David Eagleman grew up without cartilage in his nose and a snoot full of curiosity about how the brain perceives and processes time.

A few years ago he did a series of experiments replicating the fall to explore whether our brains really do see time in slow motion when the you-know-what is hitting the fan. Before strapping people into a harness and watching them drop 15 stories in a ‘suspended catch air device’ (a contraption that attracts thrill seekers who BYO diapers to midways around the world), Eagleman attached little computer screens to their wrists that spit out numbers for them to read as they fell.

It took less than three seconds for the study subjects to drop 31 metres. But they felt like it took longer. Eagleman’s measurements show that their brains were taking in information at the regular speed. No slo-mo in the free fall. He concluded that the brain’s processing of time doesn’t change in terrifying moments, but the way we remember the experience does. “Because memories are laid down more richly during a frightening situation,” Eagleman writes, “the event seems to have taken longer in retrospect.”

Memory also plays a role in stretching out more pleasant experiences, like summer vacay. When you were a kid, summer seemed almost infinite but now the warmer months are over before you’ve barely finished a G+T. That’s because back in elementary school, everything is new and your brain is filing all those experiences away, so when you look back there’s a lot in the file and it all feels longer. When you’ve been around the block a few times your brain kinda sits back, checking its nails and shrugging. To stretch time, cognitive specialists suggest trying new things, like making a fresh list of New Year’s resolutions to break.

Neuroscientists used to think the brain had one big clock that kept track of an almost unfathomable amount of timing transactions. But they’re beginning to understand that blobs of cells in different parts of the brain have different roles in getting us through the day — from co-ordinating our muscles to put one foot in front of the other, to remembering where we put the keys a second ago, to tracking our circadian rhythms, that pesky 24-hour sleep/wake cycle that makes jet lag and night shifts so unpleasant.

Philosophers, too, have put in more than a few late nights grappling with the question of time and the role of memory. About 150 years ago, long before ‘live in the moment’ started showing up on T-shirts and yoga studios, Danish existentialist Søren Kierkegaard offered this thoughtful observation: “It is really true what philosophy tells us, that life must be understood backwards. But with this, one forgets the second proposition, that it must be lived forwards. A proposition which, the more it is subjected to careful thought, the more it ends up concluding precisely that life at any given moment cannot really ever be fully understood; exactly because there is no single moment where time stops completely in order for me to take position: going backwards.”

Well, that’s the original version. Somewhere along the line, perhaps to save time or to make the idea read better on a tea towel, Kierkegaard’s comment was shortened to read: “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” But that edited version overlooks my favourite bit — that while we can try to live in the moment, we can’t really understand life at that or any other moment in time.

Time keeps moving, like an escalator. All you can do is check that your shoelaces are tied, climb on and enjoy the ride in 2018.

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