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  • Writer's pictureThe Grateful Academic

Time: 4 ways to look at the passage of time

Updated: Dec 22, 2021

Time /tʌɪm/ noun

the indefinite continued progress of existence and events in the past, present, and future.

Time is a precious commodity, but one that seems to be an increasingly difficult one to keep hold or track of! When I started this blog during the latter part of 2020, I was full of intentions of writing blogs weekly, or at least monthly, and at a real push bimonthly. Yet, here I am in July with my previous blog back in December - how did that happen? How can time feel like it is passing slowly and quickly at the same time? Now, I am an academic, but I'm certainly no Einstein and physics was never my strong point, but I have a feeling this all has a bit to do with relativity.

Relativity is a fascinating concept that I had only thought about in a very superficial way before watching the film 'Interstellar'. A fan of the Nolan movies, I was struck by the concept of gravity, time, and space so much that I read up on relativity after watching the movie. I still don't fully understand the theorem, but in simple terms it became clear that relativity is a lot to do with perspective. Examples are easy to conjure, the child in the car asking "are we nearly there yet" every five minutes, and the parents feeling like the relatively short journey will never end. Then also the fact that when we are completely immersed in something we can feel like we 'lose' time, the old adage "time flies when you're having fun".

So is there a reality in the relativity of time, and can we influence it?

As I mentioned, my intention had been to write blogs on a regular basis and it feels both years and only 5 minutes to me since I last wrote my piece on learning (see "every day's a school day"). The point I'm trying to get across is that this is my perception of the time that has passed. A reader might have a completely different view of the time since reading the last entry. If they have been waiting and expectant of this, the time may well have passed annoyingly slowly, conversely if actually there was no expectation then the time may not have been influential. So now we have two different and interacting aspects to time relativity: perspective and expectation.

The third aspect I believe may influence certainly my perception of the speed of the passage of time is awareness. What I mean by this is how much we actually think about the passage of time. Again coming back to this idea of being able to lose time. When you are totally engrossed in something, whether work or simply watching a movie, or perhaps indulging in your favourite hobby, you stop thinking about time passing and it passes anyway. Thus when you next become aware of the time again you can be easily surprised by how much time has passed. Equally, time can pass infinitely slowly when waiting for something, like a letter, text or important result.

So does my own experience of time and these facets of perspective, expectation and awareness bear resemblance to what been researched? The answer is yes, and it might just depend on our age.

Such research dates back as early as the 1870s, when Janet proposed that an apparent length of time will be felt as a proportion of the whole of a person's life. Therefore as we age the relative proportion gets smaller and thus time appears to pass more quickly. This would certainly fit with my own experience, where I feel like every decade is passing more quickly than the next. Other theories focus on the biological fact that the metabolic rate slows as we age, conversely we feel as if we have had less time, as it takes us longer to achieve things. A third type of research has looked at the perception of time related to the amount of input we are taking in, and that the more information we are taking in the slower time seems to be. This again can be reflected in the mind of the child, absorbing information all the time in everything with so many new and startling experiences, versus the known world of the adult.

So in piecing together the feeling which we might all have personally witnessed with the scientific theorem of the proportional, biological and perceptual theories of time, perhaps there are ways we can influence the relativity of time for ourselves after all.

The modern practice of mindfulness, with its roots in the ancient art of meditation, and the centring of ourselves in each act that we undertake, living in our world with open eyes and childlike wonder might just allow us to slow down time. Conversely, just maybe allowing ourselves to lose time, stop looking at the clock and completely immerse ourselves in things we love isn't such a bad thing either. For me, the fact that we may be able to influence time or at least our perception of it, is an incredibly exciting and uplifting feeling.


Links to further reading:

I also enjoyed reading Claudia Hammond's (University of Sussex) tips on speeding up or slowing down time for BBC Radio 4's 'All in the Mind: How to speed up or slow down time' and the work of Steven Taylor (Leeds Beckett University) in his article on Psychology Today 'Why Does Time Seem to Pass at Different Speeds?'.

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