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all the time in the world

The Varieties Of Temporal Experience

By Allan Eastman

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Subjective Time

A slow day at work/business. a businessman has nothing else to do but watch the time pass by.

The normalcy of the surroundings can slow down Time to an extreme degree when we are marking Time.

©iStockphoto.com/Joselito Briones

The velocity of Time we experience is apparently related to how much perceptual information our minds are receiving. So, when we are busily involved in something, Time seems to pass very quickly whereas when we spending the 15% or so of awake time that modern humans spend waiting, the minutes and hours seem to drag by. In the first instance, the brain is receiving and processing large amounts of input and being involved with managing that, sort of excludes a sense of passing Time from our experience. A busy work shift can seem (thankfully) to be over almost before it’s begun because we are so involved with what we are doing. Although, often when we look back upon it, we realize how rich and detailed that period was.

On the opposite end of the scale, when we are waiting for a Dentist’s appointment, the normalcy of the surroundings, the dullness of the old reading material and the awareness that we are waiting for a future event to occur causes the clock hands to seem to barely advance from the last time we looked at them. Our sensory inputs are receiving little new information and our brain isn’t busy. Most often, it is just moseying along, full of the random thoughts and memories – without much form or substance – that occur when we are marking Time.


However, as we have seen elsewhere with the subject of Time, there is paradox as well within the human brain’s processing of Time. When we become VERY concentrated on a multitude of sensory impressions that we are receiving, then the Time we experience can slow down to an extreme degree. My painful Jamaican experience is a prime example of that in my own life and most people who have lived through a life threatening experience like a bad accident will tell similar tales of encountering major Time dilation within themselves. Another prime example of this is the extreme slowing down of Time which certain elite athletes seem to experience – when they can weave their way through the entire opposing team to score, with what seems like a complete economy of effort, just because everything and everyone else seems to be moving in slow motion around them. Great tennis and baseball players talk of the ball becoming as big as a basketball in their eyes when they are in this “Zone”.

Curiously, this kind of Time experience seems to involve the loss of ego – the experience forces us out of our basic conscious default mode and into a state more akin to what may be more accurately designated as a “mystical” state, both out of mind and out of Time. It is probably a carryover from a deeply imbedded survival instinct within our species, a mental mechanism which provides us the greatest chance of escaping from deadly danger.

The speed of Time appears to change as we get older as well. As children, days seem endless and summers go on forever. We are so deeply immersed in the new found discoveries of our fascinating World and we haven’t yet developed the sense of self awareness which will animate our egos at a later time. We are constantly in that timeless state of Wonder that we usually experience as adults only in extreme circumstances. As we age and especially if we find ourselves in a repetitive lifestyle – same home, same job, same people, same input – Time seems to pick up pace, sometimes to an alarming degree. Each day represents a smaller and smaller proportion of our allotted time to live and the amount of things we have to do hurries us along, telescoping our experience into a foreshortened reservoir of imperfect memories. Many people talk about reaching retirement age without ever knowing how they got there so fast.

There are other human experiences that affect our Subjective sense of Time as well. Pain or suffering can slow Time down to a miserable degree. Exploring new experiences, discovering new relationships, acquiring new knowledge can seem to slow down the inexorable pace of our life’s passing as well. Certain spiritual or drug experiences will slow down or exclude a sense of Time passing while other drugs, like alcohol, seem to speed it up.

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