Musings About Time

sand hour clock

The past is gone. The future hasn’t happened yet. The present is a liminal space between two non-existent things.

We’re encouraged to stay present and live in the moment. But who really does that? Primarily, it’s young children and adults under duress.

Young children live in the moment; their time is now. A toddler of a certain disposition doesn’t understand that taking a nap now will make them happier later. That kind of thinking requires conceptualizing a future self and taking actions now for its benefit. Those concepts take time to develop. Children typically develop time perception roughly equal to that of an adult by about eight years of age. [(2021) Development of Young Children’s Time Perception: Effect of Age and Emotional Localization]

Another set of humans who are trapped in the moment are people caught in disasters — be it wars, personal attacks, illness, weather events, or earthquakes. Like young children, these individuals are also anchored in the present. When faced with the immediate demands of a catastrophe, there is little room left to consider the past or the future.

Typically, as adults, we find ourselves oscillating between the past and the future, seldom pausing to embrace the now. We plan, reflecting on what has occurred and preparing for what is yet to come — one of these is a memory, the other a speculation. Some animals do that too — elephants, for instance, remember their kin and friends after decades of separation. They prepare for changing seasons. Birds migrate to where food is more available, year after year. That’s also a form of planning, even if instinctual. However most animals live out their days in the moment, riding the waves of joy and sorrow as they come. Robert Sapolsky, in Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, illustrates how a zebra’s limited grasp of the past and future mitigates its stress. While a zebra might experience extreme stress in the moment, it does not dwell on past close calls or worry about future dangers. Unlike zebras, humans agonize over past and future events, leading to sleepless nights and, yes, ulcers.

Humans have a very well-developed sense of time perception. Some other living things do, too. Yet we don’t have good ways to compare our experiences of time with that of other animals (or even young human children). What we know is that those perceptions are different from ours and thus their reactions to events are different.

Consider a room illuminated by a flickering fluorescent light. To us, the flicker may be imperceptible, but to a fly, the light might seem to alternate slowly between on and off. Could this mean that a fly experiences time more expansively than we do, perhaps compensating for its brief lifespan by elongating each moment?

There could be less dramatic variability for time perception between human individuals too. We’re all somewhat different when it comes to our other perceptions — hearing, touch, smell, taste, vision. Why should our sense of time be identical?

Time flies when we’re having fun. Conversely, time moves slower when we are forced to pay attention to it as any student waiting for a classroom clock to tick over can attest. Perhaps “flow” — a concept that describes full engagement with a particular activity — might be understood as a complete disconnection from the passage of time.

When we encounter beings from other worlds, why should we expect their sense of time to align with ours? What if it’s wildly different? Would it be possible to understand them at all? Is communication possible if there is no shared sense of past, present, or future? If extraterrestrial beings experience time as a fly does, they may find it difficult to slow their communication for us. Conversely, if they are more akin to sloths and we are the ones zipping around, patience would be required on our part to bridge the communicative gap. And of course our memories are closely intertwined with our perception of time. If that changes, perhaps so do our memories. This could be another barrier to understanding.

In science fiction stories, most authors focus on differences in appearance and perhaps some variation in senses between humans and aliens — e.g.: human vision versus alien vision. Time sense is rarely discussed. But perhaps that is the ultimate barrier to communication? If our sense of time doesn’t align, perhaps there is no common time ground on which we can anchor our mutual comprehension.

Food for thought or perhaps the seed of a sci-fi novel?

In the meantime, delving into science fiction could be a delightful way to engage with these ideas. Here’s a link to a nice collection of free ebooks. I’ve included my “Lizard Girl & Ghost” because it partly deals with strange time misperceptions by a young girl who gets ill and spends some of that illness trapped in a virtual world. Enjoy!

2024 Free March scifi