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Authors: Claudia Hammond

Time Warped

BOOK: Time Warped
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Also by Claudia Hammond

Emotional Rollercoaster:
A Journey through the Science of Feelings

 

Published in Great Britain in 2012 by Canongate Books Ltd,
14 High Street, Edinburgh EH1 1TE

www.canongate.tv

Copyright © Claudia Hammond, 2012

The moral right of the author has been asserted

British Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data
A catalogue record for this book is available on request from the British Library

ISBN 978 1 84767 790 7
eISBN 978 0 85786 345 4

Typeset in Plantin Light by Palimpsest Book Production Ltd, Falkirk, Stirlingshire

This digital edition first published in 2012 by Canongate Books

 

For Tim

 

CONTENTS

Introduction

1. The Time Illusion

Your Time Is My Time – Time’s Surprises – Time Slows Down When You’re Afraid – Throwing People Off Buildings – Not the Kindest of Experiments – Hyperactive Time – Diving For Time – Five Times a Day for 45 Years – How to Make Time Stand Still

2. Mind Clocks

Electrifying the Brain – The Man Who Thought the Working Day Had Finished – The Perfect Sleep – Emotional Moments – The Oddball Effect – The Magic of Three – Heading for a Precipice Blindfolded – Is the Brain Timing Itself? – Operation Time

3. Monday is Red

Months Go Round In a Circle – The Millennium Problem – Colour-in History – The SNARC Effect – Do We See All Time In Space? – Time, Space and Language – Time and Space Mixed Up – When Is Wednesday’s Meeting? – The River of Time – Making Time Go Backwards – Mellow Monday and Furious Friday

4. Why Time Speeds Up As You Get Older

Autobiographical Memory – Total Recall – When Time Speeds Up – Life Through a Telescope – Take Two Items a Day For Five Years – Time-Stamping the Past – Everything Shook – A Thousand Days – The Reminiscence Bump – Remembering Moments, Not Days – The Holiday Paradox

5. Remembering the Future

Time-Travelling Into the Future – Can Your Dog Picture Next Week? – What Are You Doing Tomorrow? – Memories For Events That Never Happened – Suicide Island – Thinking About Nothing – An Erroneous Future – Bad Choices – Five Years to Reach the Word ‘Ant’ – One Marshmallow Or Two? – Future-Orientated Thinking – Looking Back, Looking Forward

6. Changing Your Relationship with Time

Time Is Speeding Up – Making Time Go Faster – Too Much To Do, Too Little Time – Failing to Plan Ahead – A Poor Memory For the Past – Worrying Too Much About the Future – Trying to Live in the Present – Predicting How You’ll Feel in the Future – In Conclusion

Acknowledgements

Notes

Bibliography

Index

 

The only reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen at once
.

Albert Einstein

 

INTRODUCTION

WHEN CHUCK BERRY
finds himself at the edge of a cliff or at the top of a mountain, he likes to jump off. When he’s in a plane, he likes to jump out. This is not Chuck Berry the famous rock-and-roll singer, I hasten to add, but Chuck Berry ‘the Kiwi king of skydiving and base-jumping’. You may well have seen him in adverts for fizzy drinks. For Lilt, he jumped out of a helicopter while riding a bicycle – twice. Now he’s sponsored by Red Bull, but you can be sure that he experiences more than a caffeine rush as he falls through the air with a parachute, choosing not to open it until the last possible moment.

For 25 years Chuck Berry has practised plummeting through the sky, whether skydiving, hang-gliding, microlight-flying or parachuting (once he even used a customised tent as a canopy); but his speciality is base-jumping. One of the more extreme ‘extreme sports’, it takes its name from the four categories of fixed objects from which you can jump – buildings, antennae, spans (bridges) and the earth (in practice, a cliff). Since 1981 there have been at least
136 fatalities; it is a sport so dangerous that one in 60 participants is expected to die doing it.

For Chuck, the key to survival resides in his ability to control his mind. Before he leaps, he visualises the exact steps he will take to achieve a successful outcome. So while any of the rest of us who found ourselves teetering on the top of the world’s tallest building (the K.L. Tower in Kuala Lumpur) would be likely to picture all the things that could go wrong – getting blown into another building, opening the parachute too late, ending up a bloody mess on the street 1,381 feet below – Chuck carefully calculates the wind direction, decides on the optimal point to open his chute and pictures himself floating down to make the perfect landing on the selected spot. Of course it helps that he also does months of planning.

With so many years’ experience, a Swift flight that Chuck took one New Year’s Day should have been easy. A Swift is a cross between a plane and a hang-glider and is said to combine the glorious soaring abilities of a glider with the convenience of being able to ascend into the air by simply running off the side of a mountain – no need for a plane to tow you up into the sky. What’s more it folds up small enough to fit on top of a roof rack. The front half looks like an elegant paper plane with extra-long, aerodynamic wings, while the body of plane is very short and the tail is missing altogether. There’s a little cockpit for the pilot, which covers only your head, shoulders and arms, and your legs hang out of the bottom to allow you to run down the hill. Picture Fred Flintstone running along the ground to start his Stone Age car – and then disappearing over the edge of the cliff and taking flight.

For his flight in the Swift, Chuck chose Coronet Peak just outside New Zealand’s bungee-jumping capital, Queenstown. It was a beautiful summer’s day and the mountain was outlined against the deep blue sky like a theatre scenery flat. It should have been the perfect location, but for Chuck the idea of some gentle soaring in this awesome immensity was a little tame. Some aerial acrobatics would sharpen the thrill. So, riding a thermal, he took the hybrid glider up to a height of 5,500 feet and then plunged her into a steep nosedive. The plan was to cut the dive at the last possible moment and then bank up towards the heavens again. No problem, right?

Wrong. The whole glider started shaking and bucking violently, and, as a former aircraft engineer, Chuck knew exactly what was happening. This was what was known in the trade as ‘flutter’ – a term devised by someone big on understatement – when the wings of an aircraft twist up and down repeatedly until eventually they flap themselves to death.

Within moments, both wings had sheared off completely and Chuck found himself in freefall. Speeding towards the ground was usually his idea of fun. But this time there was nothing to slow his descent, nothing to break his fall, nothing to save him hitting the ground at breakneck speed. Even so, as he hurtled to earth – his GPS tracker would later show rescuers that he had fallen at a speed of 200km an hour – Chuck’s mind was capable of detailed, rational thought.

Although he was now hanging outside the cockpit of a glider without wings, looking up, he saw that he was still
attached to much of the wreckage. His mind went into overdrive. He remembers exactly what he was thinking:

There had to be a way to get back into the remains of the glider. Why couldn’t he climb up into the cockpit? There had to be a way. Can’t I pull myself up? Surely. What would James Bond do?
C
ome on, dude, do something! I have to do something. Don’t look at the ground. It’s too close. There’s no time. But there has to be a way. It must have been flutter. The lever! The lever for the emergency chute. If I can just get to the lever. It should be there! Surely it has to be there. How long have I been falling for? This is taking ages. There are the hills. Not much time left. Too windy to think. This is the most important decision I’ll ever make. Do something! Save yourself! Get to that lever and pull!

Now, bear in mind that this interior dialogue, all of these thought processes, all of this precise mental calculation, would later be revealed by Chuck’s GPS system to have taken place within a matter of seconds. But for Chuck it felt like a lot longer. He knew that he had to act fast, but he had enough time – plenty it seemed – to think and to take action. For the observer, the seconds flashed by. For Chuck, it seemed to extend almost endlessly. The same time-frame with two very different perceptions of time passing. His New Year’s Day glimpse of eternity is a perfect, if extreme, example of this book’s central theme: the subjectivity of the experience of time. In situations like the one he faced, time is weirdly elastic.

We have all experienced moments in life where time becomes warped. When we are in fear of our lives, like Chuck, it seems to slow down. When we are enjoying ourselves, time ‘flies’. As the years go by, life feels as though it’s speeding up. Christmas comes round that bit faster every year. Yet when we were children, the school holidays seemed to stretch on for months.

In this book I’ll be asking whether this stretching and shrinking of time is simply an illusion or whether the mind processes time differently at different moments of our lives. Time perception – the way we subjectively experience time, what time feels like to us as individuals – is an endlessly fascinating topic because time constantly surprises us; we never quite get used to the way it plays tricks on us. A good holiday races by; no sooner have you settled in than it’s time to think about packing to leave. Yet the moment you arrive home, it feels as though you have been away ages. How is it possible to have such contradictory experiences of the same holiday?

At the core of this book is the idea that the experience of time is actively
created
by our minds. Various factors are crucial to this construction of the perception of time – memory, concentration, emotion and the sense we have that time is somehow rooted in space. It’s this last factor that allows us to do something extraordinary – to time-travel at will in our minds, moving backwards and forwards through time. I will focus on psychology and brain science, rather than the metaphysics and poetry of time, or the physics and philosophy of time – although sometimes it is hard to know where one field ends and another begins.

Physicists tell us that the popular notion that time is segmented into the past, the present and the future is inaccurate. Time does not pass; time simply
is
. John Ellis McTaggart, a well-known philosopher of time, believed much the same thing,
1
and versions of this idea underpin religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism. But this book isn’t about the objective reality of time, but rather the
experience
of it, and I’m confident that you, like me, experience time as flow, rather than stasis. I’ll be concentrating on how the mind creates sensations of time; the time that neuroscientists and psychologists call ‘mind time’. This is a time that can’t be measured by an external clock, but is central to our experience of reality.

I shall be revealing some of the imaginative methods that researchers in the emerging field of the psychology of time have used to study mind time. They’ve quizzed people on the dates of famous events, had them steer themselves towards precipices and even thrown them backwards off buildings. They haven’t been afraid to experiment on themselves either – spending months living alone in an ice cave without daylight, or measuring their own time estimation skills every single day for 45 years. Then there are those who have experienced events that have unintentionally revealed a great deal about time perception, like the man who lost the ability to imagine the future after a motorbike accident, and the BBC journalist who spent more than three months as a hostage without knowing whether he would ever be released.

Combining these experiences with cutting edge research in psychology and neuroscience from around the world
gives us an invaluable insight into the curious nature of time perception. We all know something of the malleability of time, and we don’t have to go to Chuck’s extremes to experience it. Psychologists have discovered some extraordinary things: among them the fact that eating fast food makes us feel impatient,
2
the fact that people at the back of a queue are more likely to see time as moving towards them, while people at the front see themselves as moving through time; the fact that if someone has a raging temperature time goes more slowly.

There’s also my own theory of the ‘Holiday Paradox’, which explains the phenomenon I referred to where holidays pass quickly, yet feel as though they lasted a long time afterwards. We constantly observe time in two ways – while it’s happening and then in retrospect. Most of the time this dual viewpoint serves us well, but it provides the key to many of the mysteries of time. When the two perceptions – prospective and retrospective – fail to tally, time feels confusing.

BOOK: Time Warped
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