Saturday, November 20, 2010

Following Time (Also: Time's Following Me)

I'm still puzzling over the nature of time.  I can't help but think of relativity in an Einstein-ian sense, specifically time dilation; the theory of relativity seems to suggest that time is subjective.  I was listening to the Radiolab podcast called "Falling" and in the first section they talk to a neuroscientist named David Eagleman author of several books about life and living and death and dying (I realize that's an accurate description of pretty much anything in the world…).  He talks about that life-or-death moment, when you fall off a roof (as he did) or when you're on an out-of-control horse (like me) and time seems to slow down.  You know how they say "his life flashed before his eyes?"  Well, first of all, I suspect the whole "life flashing" thing is the surreal quality those last moments have, and how it looks like your world is suddenly lit by a strobelight, not that you actually see discrete events in your life; and your life can "flash before your eyes" even if you don't end up dying.  For instance, I'm still here (you'll just have to believe me on this one) and I've had life-flashing experiences, actually several times, I think.

Point is, the world seems to slow down.  But Eagleman says that our brains aren't working any faster to make that happen, like a slo-mo camera would.  We aren't shooting in more frames-per-second, in other words.  What is happening, he says, is that our memory kicks into overdrive.  Say you're living a normal ten seconds; you're walking along the sidewalk and your memory logs ten individual things (we're <i>way</i> oversimplifying, but…) like the singing of a bird and the bite of the wind, etc.  Suddenly a car swerves off the road and is driving over curb and grass and sidewalk and heading straight for you.  Your world "slows down" and over the next ten seconds, when a car is rapidly bearing down on you, it feels like you have ten minutes to think "oh, that car's going to hit me, I'd better get out of the way."  And you do, and the ten seconds pass, and later you tell people that time slowed down and you were able to react.  But Eagleman's saying that we don't work like slow-motion cameras and what's actually happening is you're remembering more and it makes the time feel longer.  Remember how you were just walking for ten seconds and you remembered ten things?  Well, in the ten seconds you're facing the car you remember twenty things; in addition to the birdsong and autumn air you remember the tang of woodsmoke on your tongue and the exact shade of the sky and look on the driver's face.  Since you're only used to remembering ten things in ten seconds, remembering twenty things makes it seem like twenty seconds; time has not slowed down, but neither have you sped up.  Normally these twenty things would pass into our memories via our senses, but they would not make it to any sort of long-term memory.  We can't remember things that are in our working memory for virtually any time at all, so we forget all the superfluous things.

The theory is that this is a survival instinct; when you're a furry little creature getting chased by a big, slavering wolf, it's advantageous to your immediate and future survival to remember all the details.  If "time slows down," in a sense, you will be able to think about evasion and escape.  If you remember it, it can help you in the future to avoid or survive this type of situation.

So how does this jive with my thoughts on time?

Hmmm… well, I think it reinforces my idea that time is an artifact of human perception.  If we can in a sense change time, than who's to say that time isn't changing?  No offense to David Eagleman, but he's human too.  Presumably.  That means that he has human perception, and the time that he observes/measures could be his perceived time.  My central argument is that there is no core, no one truth, so there can't be a right time.

I guess that wasn't a very long response, on my part.  Pretty simple, actually.  I really just wanted to tell y'all about a cool Radiolab episode I heard.  Seriously, go check it out!

1 comment:

smiling blue said...

Maybe you could take the whole "memory speeds up" thing one step further: not only do we remember more things that were happening during that near-death experience, but we can also remember things during those moments that came before. Hence, the "life flashing before your eyes" phenomenon....PS - love RadioLab.

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