On the Experience of Time

Clocks and watches and clockworks
Photo by Mobilos via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve been noticing something very peculiar about time of late. When I’m deep in my more regular routine, working a day-job and seeing the same friends and family under the usual circumstances, it feels like time is passing very quickly. Life feels shorter, contracted, and devoid of a certain pithiness. Time ticks-by evermore briskly. During these periods, it even seems to vanish or disappear when gazed at in retrospect. “Where did all that time go?” I sometimes ask myself. It is something we all experience.

On the other hand when I travel to new places, or when I see and do new things, time feels expanded, stretched, and lengthened in a very positive way. There is a sense that more time is available, and elapsing, than is usual. It unfurls like the volume of surface territory in a mountain range if one were able to flatten and stretch it out. No matter what kind of journey I’m on, whether it’s a long-weekend away, a trip of a few weeks, or a period of months, the time that elapses always seems to feel double or triple that indicated by the calendar.

I was recently in the U.K. for two and a half months living in a new city I had never before visited. Almost everything was novel about the experience. By the end of my stay, I felt as though half a year had elapsed. It’s a pleasant and uncanny experience to feel like you’ve been handed a slight extension to life.

We know from scientific research in a field known as quantum gravity that time is neither uniform nor experienced in the same way by everyone everywhere. Contrary to our learning and conditioning there are many versions of time. The way we experience it depends on numerous factors and circumstances.

Author Carlo Rovelli writes in his recent book The Order of Time that time goes by faster the higher you are; it moves slower the faster you are moving; that it has no fixed forward directionality; there is no “present” apart from nanoseconds between past and future; and the further you travel from another person, the more time separates notions of a shared “now.”

“In the 2014 film Interstellar,” writes Rovelli in the Financial Times, “the hero travels to the vicinity of a black hole. On his return to Earth, he finds his daughter older than himself: she is an elderly lady, he is still middle-aged.

“This is not Hollywood fantasy, it is how the world truly works. The film’s scientific consultant Kip Thorne has since received the Nobel Prize in physics for his role in detecting the gravitational waves emitted by merging black holes. He knows his topic. If we do not experience similar time distortions in our daily life, it is only because here on Earth they are too small for us to notice.”

Though too slight to perceive, the time distortions Rovelli mentions nonetheless demonstrate that time is relative and malleable. Where its relativity matters most at present is within the context of our own experiences and consciousness. This is proven by our observations and comments regarding time. We often describe time as “dragging,” or “flying by” or “standing still.” In adulthood, with its incessant busyness and tyranny of routines, it is common for time to feel like it is escaping us entirely – taking much of our lives with it.

I’ve been wondering what it is about travel, or about seeing and doing new things, that makes time feel more like it is giving – rather than taking.

Photo: John Zada

While I was in the U.K. I went on a 3-day hike with my partner through the rolling countryside of Yorkshire Dales National Park in the north of England. As usual, by the end of the trip it felt like at least a week had elapsed. When I asked myself what happened during the trip that was different from my regular routine at home, a few things stood out. My partner and I were constantly problem solving, trying to determine the correct route through the park (the trail we were following would sometimes fade or vanish). Our visual background was constantly changing as we moved through many landscapes. Farmland and pastures would quickly give way to forested ravines that soon changed to hilly, windswept moors which then gave way to roads and village squares. It was as if theatre sets were being constantly rolled in and out in succession. We saw lots of animals, insects, trees, plants and flowers. Many people crossed our path, some of whom we met and conversed with. And there was loads of conversation between the two us – and silent thoughts to occupy us when we weren’t speaking. In other words: we were fully engaged with life, taking in lots of new stimulus and learning at almost every turn.

It occurred to me that if time is partly a register of the amount of change we experience from one moment to the next – as Aristotle defined it – then the more visual and mental stimuli one takes in, the more time seems to unfold – thereby lengthening it. Put another way: we may unconsciously quantify time based on how much, or little, we learn. When we are seeing new things and having novel experiences, time feels expanded relative to our normal lives, which are by comparison filled with the familiar.

When we travel it feels like we’ve lived two or three times our normal lifespans because we, in a sense, are actually doing more living. We are using our brains differently, processing new patterns or thinking differently to address new situations. Our experiences are denser and richer than when we are re-experiencing the same patterns again and again as part of our regular routines, which are essentially journeys along neuronal ruts akin to well-worn highways. This is when the feeling comes that time, and our lives together with it, are slipping away.

This has potentially big implications. If we try our utmost to fill our time with real learning and new experiences, whether at home or while travelling, then perhaps life won’t feel quite as short as the famous refrain suggests it is.

The Great Attention Heist

Tim Wu's book, The Attention MerchantsThe L.A. Review of Books is running a piece co-written with colleague John Bell on Tim Wu’s book The Attention Merchants.

To give and receive attention is a fundamental human need. Some have pointed out that attention exchange is often the main, underlying motive for any human interaction, regardless of the actors’ overt intention.

Wu shows us how technologists, profiteers and politicians take advantage of this deep human preponderance for their own advantage. So efficient has this process become, and so complete the conquest, that we can say that our awareness is now being commercially farmed.

“According to Wu, the attention merchant’s basic modus operandi is to engage us with “apparently free stuff” and then resell our attention to others. In this regard, smartphones and tablets — and the applications that support them — represent a quantum leap in the industry’s efforts to win and hold our attention. They are the frontline harvesting machines. So efficient has this process become, and so complete the conquest, that we can say that our awareness is now being commercially farmed. Furthermore, there is no harvest “season” for this industry. It is happening all the time and around the clock: in our homes, on the street, in our workplaces, during vacations. It is a symphony of mental entrancement on a global scale.”

Encountering

In the clip below, Dr. Stephan Harding, Resident Ecologist at Schumacher College in the U.K., describes his idea of an ‘encounter.’

Having finished writing a book about Sasquatch encounters in the Great Bear Rainforest of British Columbia, I found this particularly fascinating.

The segment is from an upcoming biographical documentary about economist and ecologist, David Fleming.

Going in Circles

A yellow fidget spinner turning in cirlcesIn 2009, researcher Jan Souman of the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Germany conducted a series of experiments using volunteers wearing GPS tracking devices who were told to walk in a straight line over long distances in wilderness environments.

The tests determined that people who are lost in the wilderness and think they are walking in a straight line, and have no physical landmarks to rely upon, tend to travel in squiggly, circular trajectories. In other words, they walk in circles.

Later experiments led Souman to conclude that most people, when lost without navigational cues (thus lacking a deeper contextual perspective), will not travel more than 100 metres beyond their embarkation point – regardless of how long they walk.

That’s a sobering thought. An equally sobering question is whether that same tendency may be at work where trajectories in our own lives are concerned.

Reframe

A friend recently remarked to me about how, by slightly reframing certain situations we can sometimes hugely alter their meaning, often for the better.

“We have a career housekeeper named Gloria who comes in once a week to help us clean our home,” he said. “One day Gloria stopped being herself. For weeks after she was always poutting. When I asked how she was doing, she’d reply morosely, ‘Same as last week.’

“Over time I realized she was not happy about her work and position in life.

“One day, I said to her, ‘Gloria, I’ve been thinking a lot about you and your work.’ At once she perked up.  ‘Oh,’ she said. Her frown dissolved into a little smile.

“I said, ‘You’re so very lucky to be doing what you do for a living. You get to go into people’s homes and make them a better place for their owners. You make people happier when you finish your job. You improve the world, bit by bit, by bringing order to it. You’re making the world a better place every day. Very few people have jobs like that, you know.’

“After that her mood changed completely. Her pouting stopped. And every time she came into work she’d do it with a bounce in her step, and a smile on her face.”

Icelandic Manners

A cover of the books, Names for the Sea, by Sarah Moss, a book about IcelandI’ve just finished reading Names for the Sea, a travelogue by writer Sarah Moss. The book chronicles her difficulties living and working as a teacher in Iceland, with her husband and kids in tow.

Although it’s less action-packed than I like my travel literature to be, the book contains more than a few brilliant gems of cross-cultural observation. Moss, who’s British, has a very hard time assimilating into Icelandic culture, which, as it turns out, is sometimes hugely at odds with her own – but in extraordinarily subtle ways.

I’ve written on this blog before that one of the boons of travel to places far removed from one’s own culture is that it can provide deep insight into other norms and ways of being, which, ultimately, comes full circle and provides insight into one’s own. Struggling to move through other cultures challenges our assumptions, which become mechanized and set according to our more predictable norms. Moss, explores this dynamic more than a few times in her book:

“Iceland has complexities so subtle that their existence is invisible to the inattentive foreigner. One of the Icelandic clichés about Icelanders is that, by foreign standards (as if ‘foreigners’ had one standard), they are rude. There is no word for ‘please’ in Icelandic. ‘Thank you’ and ‘sorry’ are used much less than in British and American English. Nevertheless, it has been clear to me from the beginning that Iceland is a place where the most intricate and important things are unarticulated, partly because intricacy doesn’t need to be spelt out in a place where everyone has always known how things are done, and partly because it is un-Icelandic to explain yourself. Self-explanation suggests some entitlement on the part of your audience to know your interior life. Icelandic drivers don’t indicate, Pétur once old me, because they don’t see why anyone else needs to know where they’re going.”

Sarah’s friend Pétur, who, decades earlier, moved to Iceland from the U.K., goes on to tell her about his experiences among Icelanders during his first few years there:

“There were manners of course, but the manners were sometimes not to say anything. So I’d say, ‘Excuse me, but please would you pass the potatoes.’ They’d pass them and I’d say, ‘Thank you.’ And they’d look at me, because you don’t say thank you when someone gives you a potato. That’s why you’re there, and why the potatoes are there, so you can eat them, and you know that and they know that you know that so why would you say thank you? There’s not very much of that kind of thing in Icelandic, it’s at a lower level in the same way that the flowers in the fields and the trees on the hills are at a lower level. They’re smaller and more subtle and they make more sense.”

When the Virtual Upstages the Real

Social media has become the primary conduit for criticizing others, airing our gripes and mobilizing against real and perceived injustices. It seems like it’s never been easier for members of the general public to disseminate messages and raise awareness of certain issues, online.

But like all technologies that have arisen throughout the course of history, the Internet is also a double-edged sword. It’s changed how we engage with life, exacting a sort of Faustian “price” we pay in exchange for its benefits.

One of the more obvious costs is that we spend large parts of our days distracted and entranced by screens.  There are likely a flurry of other negative consequences that lie just below conscious awareness. Pondering this has led to a thought: I wonder if by increasingly taking our concerns online, we are preempting – or robbing the real world of – other more direct forms of action we could be taking. And not just through amount of time we spend online versus out in the world.

Could it be that when we campaign, lobby or complain in the virtual world we are in fact discharging the impulse to act in the real, physical world – where our efforts and the rewards are seemingly more tangible? We feel less compelled to act because we’ve gotten that hit of satisfaction that comes with feeling that we’ve done our bit.

If so, the consequences for the future might be considerable. Yet another of those costs that we didn’t quite bargain for.

Opening Lines in CanLit

While at the Toronto Reference Library recently, I took a break from my work to poke around the Canadian Literature (CanLit) section.

For a bit of fun I came up with the idea of pulling books at random from the shelves and reading just the opening line of the titles. At first I approached the idea as a kind of game. But then I realized that examining how novelists kick off their books might reveal something about Canada’s literary culture – and its culture in general.

So, I decided to pick just 12 books.

Here are the first lines of each of those novels:

1. Early morning sunlight warm against the thin, smooth contour of one cheek, Karen sat in the breakfast-room and thought about suicide.

2. God and whiskey have got me where I am. Too little of the one, too much of the other.

3. In a small room off a banquet hall in Montreal, Lily Kramer sat in silence with her new husband.

4. It was bad enough working in the kitchen of a doughnut shop for minimum wage, but having to wear a hairnet was even worse.

5. Home is never home anymore.

6. George Bullay finished his soft-boiled egg and one slice of buttered wholewheat toast.

7. By the time we left Calais, I thought perhaps I hated Dottie Forsyth.

8. My mother died on the same day as Marilyn Monroe, August 4th 1963, and just like the movie star her body would not be discovered until the following day.

9. It’s a funny thing, to know the exact date of your death.

10. There’s a condition called Tinnitus where you hear a ringing that isn’t there.

11. I’m tired of the end of the world.

12. She’s thirty-five minutes late and for the past hour I’ve been pacing the fifteen feet between my bathroom and the window, repeating like a mantra: ‘This place is so pathetic, this place is so pathetic.’

*

The above is obviously just a small sample – a thin slice. Any other combination of books would have yielded different results. But looking at these opening lines, I’m struck by a singular tone that runs through them all – a sense of banal melodrama and sentimentality.

We’ve all heard that old refrain about how Canadian literature can often be ‘dull’ or ‘boring.’ You’ll sometimes come across the same complaint levelled at Canadian films and TV shows. Just the other day someone quipped to me that trying to read the works of certain Canadian authors is like “reading elevator music.” To apply that stereotype across the board would obviously be unjust – there are lots of excellent Canadian writers.

Though it’s very subjective, I wonder if there still isn’t something to the claim. It does seem that the themes and conflicts at the centre of our stories, more often than not tend to focus on social ill and dysfunction in interpersonal relationships. A kind of controlled, polite, existential angst and rumination that comes at the expense of action in our writing. This is probably the source of that complaint that CanLit is ‘boring.’

Could it be that we are preoccupied with these sorts of themes in our stories because, to some degree, they are the only significant life experiences that many of us can draw from?

We’re a more or less stable and prosperous country. The majority of us live relatively easy lives compared with people in the rest of the world (the down-and-out and First Nations people notwithstanding). Canada is still largely free of the earth-shattering conflicts and daily life-and-death struggles that have embroiled other regions of the globe for centuries. As a result, our greatest, most epic struggles seem to be with our own neuroses. So more than a few of our stories tend to centre around those themes – told in the measured, polite and parochial way commensurate with our temperament as Canadians.

I wonder if big exciting plots, characters, ideas and insights – a kind of universalism in literature – tends to be forged by the kind of deeper struggles that most of us haven’t been exposed to in this culture.

The Problem With Paradigms

story of the elephant and the blind menA paradigm is a theoretical formulation made up of a set of propositions – a model or template – that we use to explain our complex world.

In the study of international relations, for instance, the paradigm of “realism” sees all global politics boiling down to state actors pursuing power. “Marxist” and “critical” paradigms point to the primacy of economic and material concerns above all other things in world politics. There are scores of other paradigms that are used across many academic and intellectual disciplines. These are just a few classic examples.

A paradigm can be a very useful tool indeed. It is a lens, which can highlight or identify a recurring pattern or circumstance of human behaviour, where applicable.

But as with most tools, they come with limits.

One is that paradigms are static, whereas the world is nebulous, fluid, and constantly changing. Reality has numerous facets, which combine and overlap with one another. Exceptions to the rule abound. There can seldom be just one explanation to things. As a result our paradigms can be over-simplistic, incomplete or inaccurate – removing the complexity from the world which is actually one of its defining qualities.

The other issue is that humans are not particularly flexible when it comes to using their paradigms. Deep down we are creatures of habit and sometimes obsession. We cling to our powerful (and empowering) paradigms, adopting them as more or less permanent lenses on the world. We become emotionally, materially and politically vested in those lenses and so we refuse to take them off (also a form of laziness – who wants to expend all that extra energy judging the specifics of each circumstance to see if it really matches?). So like the ancient tale of the old woman who captures an eagle and changes its appearance to look like a pigeon (what a bird should look like to her) – we tend to reshape our perception of reality to fit our paradigms when they may not quite fit.

Contrary to the intention behind them, paradigms can be an obstacle to seeing things for what they really are.