Time perception


When people think of time, they think of the units, of hours, seconds, and months. But these units are an invented abstraction. They are the language of clocks, computers, and calendars. And all these devices or tools were invented in turn, all the way back to the first invention of timekeeping, where we brought huge tower clocks to distant towns so that we could set our train schedules appropriately. Time, subdivided into easy chunks like this, serves us well as a tool. But this conception of time is innately foreign to us humans, who evolved with the sunrise and sunset as the primary markers of the passage of time. The next longest rhythm we felt was the slow change of seasons. There was no clock in our native environment, except for some internal, intuitive clock, which could not see very far backward or forward indeed.

The units of time, and all the calculations they allow, draw a grid over our intuition of time, arranging our experience into neat little squares. Calendar events last thirty minutes, the forecast informs you of impending rain within the day, graphs speak to you of what happened on dates many years ago, recorded to millisecond precision.

But increasingly, I find that this language that the computers and the clocks speak is something I cannot understand. If I look inward into my conscious experience, and I really try to look, I begin to see my memory of the past as a hazy daydream, filled with momentary snapshots and snippets of sound. But crucially, when time moves forward, it seems like I stand still - I stand, peering into this great void filled with my memories, and I do not feel like I am moving through time but that time is moving around me, adding new memories that I sometimes cannot tell if I even had. For any sufficiently long duration, I am convinced that I stand still in time, and time somehow invisibly, imperceptibly, moves around me.

Beyond minutes and hours, which feel relatively normal, days start to get hazy, and about a week is what I’ve found to be the limit of what truly feels real and solid. As memories grow months or years old, they seem to instead be consigned to something greater: one unified, yet inexplicably distant, past.

That the past is hard to grasp is something I can make my peace with. But thinking about the future makes time feel far, far weirder.

I think I have some, albeit blurry, understanding of what a year is like. But it totally screws with my mind to try to get a grasp on decades. I have almost no ability or sense for what a decade is like, or what it will truly feel like to be, in a decade, thirty years old. But, if I look carefully, I see that this distance between my twenty-year-old self and my thirty-year-old self is totally illusory, and we are actually far closer than we appear.

This effect, where our mind totally blanks when large periods of time are invoked, seems to account for much of the effect time has where it tends to take people by surprise. “Life is too short”, they say, not because it is literally short - it is actually really quite long - but because it feels that way by our intuition. We simply cannot perceive such a distance as that between being born and dying: our minds blank when we try to look. So we get no warning that time is passing, and when years and decades elapse, we wake up as if from a dream, having gotten no notice at all. The clocks within us simply cannot measure that long. And so the distance appears to us like nothing.

This core flaw in our ability to estimate long periods of time explains a lot about why we do strange things. Why we stay somewhere, especially somewhere we don’t like, longer than we mean to. Why whenever we get some time to ourselves, even if we have great intentions, it is most often squandered. And why the mythical to-do list scheduled for ‘someday’ or ‘eventually’ tends to never get done: it is because, quite literally, that day never arrives. It’s like planning to do something when you reach eleven, all the while counting using your ten fingers. That state will simply never be reached.

Nobody understands how fast compounding interest grows. Nobody has a good intuition for exponentials. And in the same way, nobody can feel decades. Inevitably, this leads to great confusion when people figure out that interest does compound, that exponentials do get huge, and that the decades really will pass, though to them, they will seem short.

There’s this fascinating symptom where people with ADHD get an effect called ‘time blindness’. They can’t sense the passage of time on the order of hours, leading to all sorts of disaster and mayhem in their lives. They struggle to judge how long it’ll take to get ready for work in the morning. They start tasks that no reasonable person would think they have time for. It’s as if you couldn’t see distance or judge colors. But though only people with ADHD have the misfortune of misjudging small fragments of time, it is exceptionally rare for someone to not misjudge time on the order of decades, turning almost everyone’s lives into an exceptionally slow-moving disaster.

People with time blindness get medical recommendations to always wear a watch, to write down every single appointment, to set alarms and reminders. This is all in the recognition that people with time blindness can’t trust their intuition and must lean on systems, like the computers and phones which speak to us in their special language of true, accurate, and ever ticking time, a language foreign to our own internal human time.

In a world where nobody understands the true impact of exponentials, those who do and can leverage that knowledge wield great power. Perhaps those who end up avoiding ruin and achieving broadly great things can attribute their success to systems, whether consciously built or accidentally stumbled into, which enforce the true perception of time. Just like humans cannot naturally see ultraviolet, but build tools and computers to see it anyway, a large proportion of our tools, ideas, and traditions are — what I suspect — to be mitigations for our failure of intuition. So maybe this is how we tame this beast, how we change our behaviour to account for the years of living we have left, and how we can begin to unblind ourselves and truly see time.