On Slow Time, Memory, Money

Some say ‘time flies when you are having fun’; so if you do have less fun, you have more time. That is illogical: we all have the same hours in the day as Elon Musk, Beyonce Knowles or Albert Einstein yet we never achieve what they have because we have brains, experiences, genes that are so different. Time does differ between people, for instance victims of Alzheimer’s lose their sense of chronology when they lose memories; the 2% that sleep for four hours in effect have more time but with fewer hours rest often have hampered memory; the rich keep a cycle of riches through their time not spent on feeding their children through the week or washing up but investing in stocks and shares.

Different sets of memories in different brains with their unique accumulation of neuron-branched experience is a fascinating process whereby the present builds on the past, memories of the past change the present and past alike. Each time we remember, we remember a chain of memories since each time we retrieve a memory the record is changed; and of course what we recall is never the events themselves.
Often the ‘having fun’ that makes time fly is experiencing what psychologists call flow whereby familiarity and the easeful ‘groove’ of skilled experience makes an activity pleasurable, escapist, and feel natural. Rather than making time fly it actually slows time down during the activity, but can fees as though its passed quicker in hindsight; because it is so enjoyable, we want more than there was.

Immersive experiences like a perspective shifting film, kisses, or a fight can warp time. And since money buys captivating experience money does buy happiness. And the well-off say money doesn’t because they have rarely, if ever, experienced below their baseline.

It isn’t just pleasure that can slow time; accidents make the brain scan for solutions hence ‘my life flashed before my eyes’, and in fact the worst experiences often stand-out most, because the brain wants to preserve itself from trauma, trauma is valued highest; and between dreamlife and wakinglife time feels expanded or like it has ceased entirely. Ruminating over a clock or waiting for a bus annoyingly slows time, but the banality means it will not be remembered as being long or as slow in hindsight–it probably won’t be remembered at all. Then again, if that bus makes you miss a date or your favourite band it likely will: we remember emotions most of all.

Experiences in ‘sleepy’ locales such camping, isolated villages or Mediterranean islands can affect memory since clock-time operates less tyranny there. Similarly, the perception of time in Greenland is reportedly different because of few distractions. There is liminal research at York University that proposes Mandarin speakers have a slower time perception than English speakers, tantalisingly close to the Sapir-Whorf thesis. The theory that language partially forms culture.

Curiously, weather and time are etymologically linked by Latin languages as ‘temps’, ‘tiempo’, ‘tempo’ which exposes how time and weather are synonymous to change.

More curiously, we tend to think of time as left (old) to right (new) in a linear pattern – perhaps adopted by reading habit? – but cultures like China modelled and calendared up-to-down, and others made no calendar at all but instead retained a nuanced awareness of seasons and stars.

Our artificial time systems like the seven day week – seven, because of the planets in the sky visible to the naked eye that caught on in Ancient Babylon then propagated by religion – or the 24 hours split into 12 hour day and 12 hour night by the ancient Egyptians, to the conveniently divisible months of solar rotation work by the implicit agreement of societies with the fated biology of diurnal (light, awake) homo sapiens.

The disjuncture between psychological and chronological time is part of the debate between idealism and materialism that played out between physicist Albert Einstein and philosopher Henri Bergson, as explored in The Physicist and the Philosopher:the Debate That Changed Our Understanding of Time Given whose name is remembered the chronological did win out; time is objective -measured to atomic accuracy of the decay of Cesium-35, exists in the fourth dimension – but the interaction of objective and subjective is intriguing, especially how the pacing of a film or a book can be objectively long but subjectively feel brief–the compression of a story can span fictional years in an hour or 3 pages as Nobel-winner Mario Vargas Llosa outlines in Letters to a Young Novelist; and verbs give a simultaneity unique to languages like French, as James Wood outlines in How Fiction Works

We can slow down time. In some ways, be it slowing the present experience or making a more memorable past.

As Ed Cooke explains in the wonderful Moonwalking with Einstein (If you want to learn how to remember like a literal memory champion read that book; the author and starring roles won the yearly memory championship, a real thing) his project to “expand subjective time”, “to avoid that feeling at the end of year of where the hell did it all go?” involves doing as much flow activities and as much distinct experiences as possible.

As we age time does objectively go quicker because of neurological changes but we can subjectively expand time through fiction and travel. The reason humans consume and make fiction is because one life and one lifetime is insufficient. Living vicariously through fiction is living many lives and times. Contrary to fun making time fly then, the novelty and emotion of experiences encodes memory and gives the impression of the full life everyone wants to lead. As Ed Cooke explains, “the denser the web the more depth your experience of time will be”.

In other words, the more bookmarks or chapters in your life story the longer and fuller time perception is. Hence, in part, the near universal desire to travel: the novel environment encodes memory and pleasurably gives bookmarks to the routine sameness of life: ‘before that trip to __’, ‘after that time in __’.

Time is chronological and psychological, art plays with psychological time, memory is but a distorting memory of memory, culture affects time perception, as do agreed measures; and to avoid the feeling of waking up and falling t bed incessantly again brain stimulating novelty interleaved through the day is key.

All fascinating, but most of all this awareness of time can be valuable for judging our presupposed habit of ‘wasting time’ and the harmful notion of ‘time is money’. What will be memorable, emotional, enjoyable is the best use of time available; not a waste at all. While money can bring those experiences the expenditure of hours for hypothetical futures – ‘when I retire’, ‘next Summer’, ‘after Christmas’, ‘after this hairdo’ – is the worst trade-off rampant in our time. For as Henry David Thoreau wrote “the price of anything is the amount of life you pay for it”.

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