Forever Young – How to Make Time Stop

Featured, Health, Science 2018-09-07

In my all-time favourite book, Peter Hoeg’s “Borderliners”, the main characters challenge time by swinging on a rope from a tree over a railway track. The closer to the approaching train they swing, the more time seems to slow down. For twenty years this thought has fascinated me and I’ve always held it for true. That time when the dog attacked and you perceive the whole event in slow motion, the look, the approach, the teeth, the plunge and the dog breath and drool in your ear as it is standing on top of your back. The moment when you lose control over your car on an icy road and somehow manage to have time to move through every step as you adjust the slide without hitting the brakes or overcorrecting. Or when you are riding your bike behind your child who loses control on a bend, and collides with a street light or whatever that just happens to be appearing tangentially to the curve and you can only watch it happen…

In 1656, Christiaan Huygens invented the pendulum clock and before that our forefathers used seasons shifting, sundials and hourglasses to tell time. But can time really be told?

Augustine of Hippo, later St. Augustine, contemplated over the concept of time in Book 11 of the Confessions. Time can obviously be measured, he states, but how could something that has no actual duration and extension be measured? Augustine concludes that it could be the fact that we seem to measure time as it passes through the present moment; our bodies move through time and are not themselves definitive of time.

“What, then, is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks me, I do not know. Yet I say with confidence that I know that if nothing passed away, there would be no past time; and if nothing were still coming, there would be no future time; and if there were nothing at all, there would be no present time.”

Augustine’s Confessions, Book 11, Chapter XIV

To tell time

Deep space background banner with transparent clock face on right hand side

Hermann Minkowski introduced the relativity concept of proper time, the actual time elapsed between two events as measured by a clock that passes through both events. Beyond that definition it is easy to get lost in time and space and spacetime intervals and Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity. But the concept of time can sound philosophical even from a physicist. Stephen Hawkin mentions in one of his lectures that looking at the stars is actually us looking back in time, since the light that we are watching left the distant stars a long time ago [1].

There is a difference in physical time and psychological time, one being objective and the other one being, well, less objective. Sensory stimulation can, for unknown reasons, systematically bias the perceived passage of time. Neurotransmitters such as dopamine and adrenaline are integrally involved in our perception of time and to some extent also other cognitive processes such as attention [2]. No kidding! Time never moves more slowly than when someone tries to explain the rules of any board game or card game. Or for that matter boring lectures or workshops.

So is it that it’s necessary to endure trauma or near death boredom to make time slow down? Can’t we just be allowed to have some fun without risking PTSD while remaining (forever) young?

The Oddball effect

Broken Pocket Watch in the Sand

Time perception, being a construction of the brain, can be surprisingly easy to manipulate experimentally. Just like optical illusions, there are temporal illusions that can be provoked in the laboratory. Perceived durations are distorted during rapid eye movements, like after watching a flickering light, or by the “Oddball effect”.

The Oddball effect explains that all these illusions and distortions are consequences of the way your brain builds a representation of time. The effect can be illustrated by a stream of images shown over and over in succession, and an oddball image is thrown into the series and appears to last for a longer period, although presented during the same physical duration. [3]

Research also suggests a close intertwining of time and memory. During a frightening event, the amygdala – the part of the brain that decodes threatening stimuli and is in charge of developing emotional memory – is thought to contribute to denser-than-normal memory formation. In this way, frightening events become associated with compressed memories, and the more memory one has of an event, the longer it appears to have lasted [4]. Therefore, time-slowing is a function of recollection rather than perception.

Daily frights not necessary.

Doing the same routine every day barely registers in the brain. Habits are great to form during life and might be what would take us through our remaining days if we were to contract brain damage or dementia [5], or just during all those brain-fog days when having small children, but it makes the days merge and seemingly pass at a high speed. Habits make it harder to remember what happened at a particular time in life, in the last week or even yesterday.

To live a longer life, perceived or recollected (who cares, really) the trick is to make each day memorable, not by trauma but by shocking us just a little bit out of sync, by doing something we’ve never done before to break the habit of monotonous days. Novelty, however, means subjectively exciting things. For you it can be sky-diving. For me, it can be leaving home without my smartphone.

1.The Beginning of Time
2.Droit-Volet S.Time perception, emotions and mood disorders. J. Physiol. Paris. 2013, 107(4), 255-64. doi: 10.1016/j.jphysparis.2013.03.005. Epub 2013 Mar 29.
3.The Effect of Predictability on Subjective Duration, Vani Pariyadath, David Eagleman PLOS1, November 28, 2007
4.Brown SW. Time, change, and motion: the effects of stimulus movement on temporal perception. Percept. Psychophys. 1995, 57, 105–116.
5.The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business Charles Duhigg 2007