Thursday, January 31, 2013

Our Most Important Sense: A Sense of Time

In the last three blogs I traced human development from cavemen through ancient civilizations to the modern computer. I presented evidence that this development was dependent on a superior memory and a sense of time that extended far into the past and well into the future.

Yet, today, our sense of time is so much a part of our lives we hardly notice it's there. 
A deep-sea fish has probably no means of apprehending the existence of water; it is too uniformly immersed in it...
Sir Oliver Lodge, British scientist
While the other senses such as seeing, hearing etc. are widely studied, the sense of time, while crucial, does not get much attention. 

There are two reasons for this: the first is that like the deep-sea fish we are too immersed in time so we have few means of apprehending its existence; the second is that our experience with time is quite complicated, so it's hard to know where to start or what questions to ask.
"Time perception studies the sense of time, which differs from other senses since time cannot be directly perceived but must be reconstructed by the brain."
"Humans can perceive relatively short periods of time, in the order of milliseconds, and also durations that are a significant fraction of a lifetime. Human perception of duration is subjective and variable."
In order to unravel time, as we experience it, we must separate the layers. I suggest the following is a good place to start:


Objective time: The ticking of the clock, the sun rising, the sun setting -- this will 'wait for no one' and exists independently of a culture or a person.

Cultural time: Every culture, each region, each business has its own shared concepts of time, its own conventions and expectations. A New York minute is faster than a New Orleans minute, for example.

Personal time: Each of us carries within us a 'time-map' of our lives, from earliest memories to the different schools we attended and places we lived which include milestone events, such as falling in love, losing a friend, starting a career and going though a family's divorce. Much of this map is divided based on these events that mark time -- rather than the mathematical divisions of the calendar or the hourly divisions of the clock. In addition when we are 'off duty' we experience time very differently than when we are 'on duty' or 'on the clock'.

The rhythm of the duration of an event is an experience of our consciousness whose beginning and end is not determined by the clock but by its duration within our consciousness, and once there, it has no other dimensions and no other limits save the limits of the experience itself.
Naum Gabo, Divers Arts, 1962 
(a principle founder of the art movement known as Constructivism around 1920)

With each individual, personal time is stored in the brain. While there is much to be discovered about this process, one theory has it that each sense stores a memory of what was sensed, all of which is then somehow tied together as having happened at the same time. Yet the key point is that these memories are in the brain and can be accessed.

Each person must reconcile objective time, cultural time, and personal time to function in the society. Our sense of time is crucial as it tells us where we are on the time grid and it gives us our time bearings. Without it we would be propelled along life's journey without knowing where we are located or where we are headed.

Like the left-right, forward-back, up-down movements that define motion in the world of space (known as the x/y/z axes as described by Descartes), we keep our bearings by knowing where we are in relation to other things. And so with the dimension of time, we need to know where we are in relation to the constraints of time.

All photos in this article are courtesy of

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