If you were told Wednesday’s meeting had been moved forward two days, when would you expect it? Some will say Monday. Others Friday. How you answer reveals the different ways in which people experience time.
People who expect the rescheduled meeting on Monday tend to see themselves as fixed in place with time as a conveyor belt of new experiences moving toward them. Those expecting to meet on Friday instead have the sensation they are the ones moving forwards into the future. It’s a subtle but noticeable difference: are we fast approaching Christmas, or is Christmas coming up fast?
Hammond’s book is filled with fascinating details of this sort, uncovering the many ways in which time may be an entirely personal matter. Blending the latest research on brain science with history, sociology, philosophy and pop psychology, the author, a BBC radio personality, seeks to understand how we perceive time. “Our minds actively construct our subjective experience of time through a combination of processes involving memory, attention and emotion,” she writes.
Why does the first time you drive to an unfamiliar location always seem to take longer than subsequent trips? According to Hammond, the answer is found in how your brain catalogues experiences and thus keeps track of time. New sensations require a greater application of brain resources, leading to more detailed and permanent memories, which form the basis for time perception. On subsequent trips, your brain doesn’t have to work as hard, so time seems to move faster.
This is the same reason time appears to pass more quickly as one ages. As you grow older, life is increasingly filled with familiar experiences and the necessity of recording new details fades. The bulk of permanent memories are created between the ages of 15 and 25 years old, Hammond argues, which plays havoc with attempts to estimate time correctly over the long haul. She concludes with tips for getting a handle on the past, present and future by altering how you perceive time. Time as objective reality? That’s so yesterday.