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How We Perceive Time – A Passage Through Life

You will likely have heard the phrase “time is an illusion”, used either in a joking manner or else in a more serious tone. When it comes to time, personal perception is one of the key influences in our understanding of the past, present and even future. As you know, 2020 is a key year for change – everything we know has been turned on its head and left wobbling – almost every aspect of society has suffered intense forms of change. We are now emerging into an academic year unlike any other – you may find yourself asking “How is it September already when last week it was only April?” while your housemate beside you is complaining about how it’s only September and how this year must be the longest on record.

As members of the human race, we do not possess internal time-keeping devices; that is, we cannot naturally keep record of the passage of time, which is why perceptions of time and time-passing can often vary from person to person. An interesting example of this can be drawn from the nationwide – even worldwide – state of lockdowns many of us endured. Remember that period where we all sat in our bedrooms for about four months not moving beyond 2, then 5 kilometres. That was fun right? But try and recall it in your head? Is it a combination of many different memories that stretch on and on and on, or is it a general memory with the odd variance here and there – perhaps a trip to Aldi or a different walking route?

Ruth S. Ogden, in her article on the passage of time during the UK Covid-19 lockdown examined hundreds of different participants for her study on people and their perceptions of time. Ogden found that more than 80 percent of participants experienced changes to how quickly they perceived time during lockdown compared to pre-lockdown. Those who were older or less satisfied with their current levels of social interaction were likely to experience the slower passage of time over the course of a day or a week. Slower passage of time commonly tied into days which were also associated with higher stress – such as days where Covid-19 case numbers were higher than normal, or when family members were at greater risk of contracting the virus.

On the opposing end of the spectrum is time when we are on holidays – or thoroughly enjoying a few days. Studies have proven that perceptions of time – especially when in the moment (but also reflecting afterwards) – are often viewed as having passed more rapidly when on holidays: enjoying moments makes time feel as if it is going faster.

Time is also viewed as being consistently malleable in nature by many: time is an ever rapidly increasing phenomenon for most of the elderly population. For many, to draw on childhood memories is to draw on memories of extended periods of time: perhaps time spent learning hobbies or acquiring new skills. Simply just existing from day to day in primary school, or at home – is something which to many can be a slower process than, say, time spent in final years of secondary school or in the ever rapidly-progressing college terms.

Perhaps now is the right moment for me to mention the Theory of Relativity – Einstein’s scientific explanation about how space relates to time. As a student of the College of Arts, it is likely my explanation will not serve this complex scientific theory justice – but in short the Theory of Relativity is how “the motion of one thing is always relative to the motion of everything else.” Special relativity also refers to the link between space and time: time generally speeds up the slower you’re moving through space, and tends to slow down the faster you move through space.
General relativity also refers to theories of gravity: gravity is viewed as having a warping effect on time – the larger an object (such as a big planet) the more it warps the space around it. Time dilation ties in with all of this, i.e time going faster at the summit of the mountain than at the base. Remember that stressful moment in Interstellar (one of Christopher Nolan’s many mind-boggling films) on the planet covered entirely with water where one hour on the base of the planet was equivalent to seven years back on planet Earth – yeah, that sort of thing.

I thoroughly apologise if this has left anybody reeling or experiencing mild forms of existential crisis. On a reassuring note, if you feel you are now hurtling through time at an unstoppable rate towards your demise, the life expectancy in Ireland, since the year 2000 has increased by over five years. So at least there’s that right? And a tip, if possible maybe try experiencing as many new things as possible – do go into that coffee shop you’ve been too shy to go into – you never know, your perception of time may just slow down a small bit. Every new memory is another landmark in your existence which can only serve to slow time down – if only a very minor amount.