Sunday, July 23, 2017

"The Secret Life of Time"

Via Twitter:  In 1917, the psychologist Edwin G. Boring and his wife, Lucy, described an experiment in which they woke people at intervals to see if they knew what time it was; the average estimate was accurate to within fifty minutes, although almost everyone thought it was later than it actually was. They found that subjects were relying on internal or external signals: their degree of sleepiness or indigestion (“The dark brown taste in your mouth is never bad when you have been asleep only a short time”), the moonlight, “bladder cues,” the sounds of cars or roosters. “When a man is asleep, he has in a circle round him the chain of the hours, the sequence of the years, the order of the heavenly bodies,” Proust wrote. “Instinctively he consults them when he awakes, and in an instant reads off his own position on the earth’s surface and the time that has elapsed during his slumbers.”

It may also be a simple matter of induction: it was 4:27 A.M. when I last woke at whatever hour this is, so that’s what time it is now. The surprise is that I can be so consistent. William James wrote, “All my life I have been struck by the accuracy with which I will wake at the same exact minute night after night and morning after morning.” Most likely it’s the work of the circadian clocks, which, embedded in the DNA of my every cell, regulate my physiology over a twenty-four-hour period. At 4:27 A.M., I’m most aware of being at the service of something; there is a machine in me, or I am a ghost in it.

And, once the ghost gets thinking, there is much to think about—most of all, how little time I have in which to do all the things I’m thinking about and how behind I am. Until very recently, that included a book about, of all things, the biology and perception of time, which had preoccupied me since before my kids—twin boys, Leo and Joshua, now ten—were born. In its wake is everything else: the melting ice caps; the cost of orthodontics; the rise of demagoguery; the gutters I have to clean before winter, if winter really comes. The end of the year is nearly here, and still my schedule is scattered across four productivity apps.

As worried as I am in these waking moments, I also find them oddly calming. It’s as if in falling asleep I’d fallen into an egg and woken as the yolk, cushioned and aloft on an extended present. It won’t last, I know. In the morning, the hours and minutes will reassert themselves and this seemingly limitless breadth of time will seem unreal and unreachable—the dream of boundless time, dreamed from the confines of an egg carton. But that’s a thought for tomorrow. For now, it’s now, and the tick of the bedside clock is the muffled beat of a heart.

(Link to more)


Christy said...

If I notice the time when I go to bed, I can wake up within 5 minutes of a targeted hour. I figure my brain was calibrated during my first 5 years when we had a clock chiming the quarter hour all night long. Don't know how I'd do if you woke me and asked the time. I do still love a chiming clock, but nobody else does.

AllenS said...

What time is it?

Hmmmm, o dark thirty?