Time in a battle
One time, I overheard two little boys, both around 5 years old, talking to each other:
Boy 1: Have you had a birthday?
Boy 2: Yes, but I had it again.
Boy 1: Me too. How many times do you think we will have birthdays?
Boy 2: I don't know. I think after many birthdays, it cycles back.
We all wish time would really cycle back, but the older we grow, the more time becomes more multi-splendored – the more it becomes much more than an arrow that only goes forward. Our time is no longer measured by the number of birthdays we have, but by what we remember of the time we have lived so far.
We humans have a limited "bandwidth" in terms of our senses. We only see in visible colors, we can only perceive 5 tastes, smell about 400 odors, and hear only from 20-20,000 hertz. But we have superpowers when it comes to mental time travel.
I was looking out from my seat as my plane was about to land during a recent trip to San Francisco. I could see sunlight scattered in a gorgeous "T" pattern in the horizon at the Bay. It took 8 minutes for that light to reach my eyes when it left the Sun. The physics of time measures that. But for what seemed like parallel time, I was also transported to the past when, for almost 30 years, every time I visited San Francisco, I would be met by my father at the airport. And then, I "visited" my future, a few minutes away from the present, when my father who died just over a year ago will not be there at the airport to shout my name. I extended my future even further, and in that future he will never ever be there to hug me and kiss my head. Then I became conscious of the present: with my eyeglasses fogging up, my mind remembers a loving past, but it cannot reckon the present reality that my father is no longer at the airport or anywhere I can physically reach.
That was a snapshot of a moment in my life. No human is a stranger to similar moments – where past, present, and future all "battle" for your attention. The two little boys were close in thinking that time cycles back. In mental time, time just goes in all directions, not just when we think about our own lives but also of others' lives and the universe.
Knowing the rate that the universe is expanding since the Big Bang gives us the age of the universe. Knowing about the molecular lifetimes of elements gives us the age of our planet and all the other things that shape it, like mountains, gorges, or rocks. Knowing about the different cellular clocks that tick inside living organisms dictate the optimum times for specific biological processes and a range of how far their lifetimes stretch, including our own. But the human mind? It belongs to a very strange league of time-sensing.
Our mind makes up its own concept of time, and as far as our memories are concerned, they are tagged not according to arched points around a clock, but according to the meaning we attach to them. Our sense of time is tied to the story of our lives that we tell ourselves and others. Science saw this in studies. We perceive fearful moments to last longer than the stopwatch records. We think time slips away faster when we are having a great time than when we are suffering or bored. Young people sense the passing of youthful time as slower than the actual movement of the calendar. Older people sense time's arrow as shooting faster than the real ticking record of the years. Scientists simply call this "mind time."
That is what makes any reflection on time so profoundly moving. The hands of our mental clock point not just to the meaning of the moment but also to the meaning that we derive from the gift of being able to live through cross sections of time in our heads. We can jump at different points and create a narrative for ourselves made up of any of those varying points.
If our minds did not do this kind of time travel for our own story making, how would we have organized our memories? No one knows, but I came across this powerful video by Temujin Doran which groups memories according to how much time we spend doing them. It is based on a book by David Eagleman called Sum. In it, it asks one to imagine experiencing those groups of activities if time were linear.
A snapshot of time as linear would look like this, with each item occurring only one after the other: your first 30 years will just be for sleeping, followed by two years of just boredom, 6 months of watching commercials, 3 years of swallowing food, 18 months of waiting in line, 7 months of having sex, 200 days in a shower, 67 days of heartbreak, 3 months of doing your laundry, 77 hours in confusion, 15 hours of signing your name, 27 hours in agonizing pain, and 14 minutes of joy.
I don't know how I could live through 67 days of heartbreak before the 14 minutes of joy, or probably even after. I am ever so grateful that we humans experience life's moments as a mishmash of everything. We are creatures who celebrate birthdays by voluntarily staging time's "battle" in our own heads. We remain powerless in stopping time's arrow, but we can reshape it as it pierces our lives. – Rappler.com
Maria Isabel Garcia is a science writer. She has written two books, "Science Solitaire" and "Twenty One Grams of Spirit and Seven Ounces of Desire." You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.