Absolute Time, Relative Experience

Submitted by Shawn Conn on Sun, 05/08/2011 - 21:58

It's been a while since another post. There are many topics that I have cached that I'd like to write on. If it weren't for the troubling aspect of so many things eating at my free time, you'd see more posts on here. I'm not sure there are many readers on here anyway, I've noticed the traffic has slowed down to very little these days. Partly because Google hasn't been indexing the site correctly which I fixed not too long ago. I'm sure the sporadic updates are another reason. So be it; there's not much I can do it about it.

Lately, an intriguing concept for me has been time. I'm reminded of a post I wrote long ago about my 2nd act. I think about today and the way things have progressed in my life which, in turn, has made me think about how I perceived time back then versus how I perceive them now. Time is a hard thing to exactly pin down; it can mean different things depending on what you're talking about.

In physics, time is a duration between 2 events or physical states. Whether it's how long it takes for the earth to fully rotate, a pendulum to move from side-to-side, or the radiation frequency of a cesium-133 electron transitioning between energy levels, the essence is the same; noting a specific physical state and some constant duration between each happening of that state. Keeping track of time physically allows us to consistently synchronize many things in life.

Psychologically, however, time is a different creature. Anyone that has uttered about time, flying, dragging on, or such has experienced this. Time isn't felt with the consistent synchronicity as with a modern atomic clock; it's relative to the observer based on number of influences. These influences can warp how time is felt just as gravity warps spacetime. Most of these influences are pretty common to many people; things like a person's age, the novelty of what their feeling or doing, their sense of urgency, their emotional state, the influence of drugs, and so on affect a person's sense of time. The Wikipedia article on time perception is an interesting write up on the phenomena and discusses many of these same influences.  

The brain isn't like a clock. For the brain, time is more like a series of memories (feelings, thoughts, facts) that we can go back and reflect on even as new ones are happening. These memories that flood into our brain represent how we feel time progress. How many new memories we pick up, given a certain amount of time, would be akin to some sort of temporal resolution for the mind.

The easiest way to explain temporal resolution is to compare to something like a video camera. A video camera works just like a normal camera except it take multiple pictures every second. Showing the pictures in normal progression produces the effect of motion. For a video camera, the temporal resolution is how many pictures, or frames, are taken per a unit of time (seconds). The frames per second (FPS) captured by the camera is the temporal resolution. With a greater resolution, the effect of motion/change is more noticeable. A slideshow of pictures progressing a 1 FPS won't feel like motion, a video at 10 FPS will produce choppy looking video, a movie at 24 FPS will produce a reliable feel of motion, a TV broadcast or video game at 60 FPS will produce smoother motion akin to what we see in life.

But the brain isn't like a video camera either. It doesn't capture crystal clear memories at a certain rate each second. Its temporal resolution is variable. While there's a few well known influences on the brain that adjusts it, we hardly know the whole picture of it. 

So how does that relate back to feeling of time perception? The brain, by its nature, doesn't have a concept of the second. It can't feel a second. The second is something created by us for observing the physical world. We anchor our lives around the physical phenomena of the second so we can make order of life, but their is no inherit concept of it. For the feeling of time perception, the brain is governed by our senses and its thoughts. The memory is its unit of time.

To explain how this relates, I'll use the most common influence that everyone has experience with: aging. Let's use a couple days that most people have gone through: the first day of elementary school & the last day of high school. This example is arbitrary but it could work with any 2 similar events where one occurred after another.

In the first day of elementary school, you have to go through a lot of new things which are almost always, for good or bad, memorable: learning to wake up on a certain time, learning how to read, meeting new friends, learning all your teachers, etc. Through a kindergartner's first day, there are numerous novel things to learn, feel, and do.

Compare that to the last day of high school. While there will still be many memorable things (saying good bye to friends/teachers, preparing for graduation, etc), it won't compare to the first day of elementary school. At that point there has been many routine things established: your schedule, your friends, your hobbies, the subjects you know, etc. In your mind, these things are glossed over; they're footnotes pulled from your explicit/implicit memory

Visually, I like to think of it as a day divided up into different memories of that day. In the example above, the top would be the new kindergartner's day compared with the graduating senior's day. The length of time is the same (i.e. one day worth of physical time). However, there are way more memories divided into the day of kindergarten than there is the day of high school.

   

However, because the mind feels time by its memories, the amount of time felt for the kindergartner is much longer than the high school student. Each memory itself is the unit of time, not the second. Visually, the effect would appear something like this to the mind:

As time goes on this effect becomes more pronounced as a routine sets in. It's not immediately noticeable, because of its graduality of time but it's noticeable on retrospective. Comparisons between the length of summers during school vacation versus the length of summers as a working adult are quite noticeable for me. One good way to observe it is to pay attention to what kids do versus adults. Adults are generally more patient because time, for them, is passing faster than kids. Many parents talk about how quickly their "kids grow up so fast" which is funny because, from the kids' perspective, they grow up so slow.

This effect isn't just related to new experiences. New experiences are just one of the many influences I mentioned before. Aging, I imagine, is the most noticeable of all. As the body slows down from aging, the alertness from its senses puts the mind & body into a gradually increasing torpor. In an odd abstracted way, the body aging isn't too different from NIST's definition of aging which is used in the context of physical timekeeping. 

The end effect is new memories created from our senses and thoughts slows down, even though time is still passing at a constant rate. In other words, our temporal resolution decreases; the 60fps videogame turns into the 24fps movie, which turns into a choppy 10fps video which turns into a slideshow of still moments.

If you wanted to extrapolate it out, you can use the same visual example. Imagine a person's life experiences as a spiral of memories; densely packed from the center starting from birth and childhood, and getting less sparse as you spiral out into adulthood. Those core group of memories in the center define you as a person. The more you add to the spiral, the more you reflect on things and wonder where the time has gone.   

This sort of relativity in time perception makes me wonder about how other creatures feel time. Do dogs have a greater temporal resolution than people? Does time moving slower for them? Does it allow them to do things like catch objects with their mouth quickly? Gradually they age and move slower. Does their lifetime feel the same as ours? What about insects that live for only a few days? They react really quick to movement. Does their greater temporal resolution make time move even slower for them?

Something to ponder...

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