I am sure you know the feeling: you have been focused at completing a task – let’s say studying – and then, when you look up from your desk and take a look at your watch, you see that a couple of hours have passed. A couple of hours! It feels like you have just started. But, when you take a closer look at the situation, you come to realize that it is not just that time seemed to go faster while you were deeply involved in the activity: it is more like the entire notion of time did not exist at all.
While you are 100 percent focused on doing something – whatever this ‘something’ might be – nothing outside of that something seems to exist. No outer world, no expectations, no time. Not even you. Only the world of the something ‘you’ are immersed in seems to exist. But what are the implications of observing this momentarily ‘non-existence of time’ for our common perception of time?
Let’s start by picking an activity in which your consciousness is put outside of the scope of time: sleeping. When you wake up from a good night of sleep, you have no idea – given that you did not look at the clock – how long you have actually slept. A period of time that in reality might have spanned a couple of hours might feel like it spanned only a couple of minutes. An even more extreme example would be a comatose patient: patients who awake from a coma usually have no clue how long they have actually been in the coma.
But it is not only while you are sleeping that time seems to play tricks on us. Also in our daily lives we are constantly bothered by its remarkable properties. For think about it: how slow does time go when you are waiting for your dentist, and he is already ten minutes late? Ten minutes can feel like eternity, right? But what if you are hanging out with your friends, laughing and having a good time, but you know that you have to leave in ten minutes? Then ten minutes might feel like a second. And you know who also pointed out this weird feature of time? The same man that shocked the world with his theory of relativity: mister Albert Einstein. This is what he had to say about our experience of time:
Although our experience of time – and even time itself – might be relative, there is one aspect that remains constant throughout all frames: the seemingly uni-directionality of time. For it seems like time is always going forward, to the future. But even though nature pushes us forward in time, we can decide where in time we want to be: do you want to be in ‘the now’, or would you rather dive into your past or dream about the future? It is your consciousness that determines where in time you are situated mentally. It is pretty much like the movie The Matrix: your body stays put on planet earth, while your mind lives a life on its own. What this observation shows is that time does not equal the hands on the clock. Our perception of time is not always moving in fixed units in a fixed direction. The fact that we have invented the notion of time because it is convenient within our daily lives does not prevent us from experiencing time in any form we want.
But of course: we cannot live our lives totally detached from the ordinary – constantly forward moving – property of time. After all, our human bodies are earthly constructs and will break down after a quite predictable period of time. However, within the fixed time frame we have been offered, the unit of time is variable: within this fixed time frame a minute does not have to feel like a minute and a couple of hours can feel like a couple of seconds. Within this fixed time frame we are the masters of time.
What is your notion of time?