Friday, 15 June 2012

Distractions and the alchemy of time

If you know anything about the residents of Contrary Towers you'll know we like distractions. Show us a shiny thing and we'll be off like a shot. Actually, don't show us a shiny thing and we'll go looking for shiny things.

We do have quotas you know.

And alchemy. We like that too. I know my flatmate is by far the expert on the subject, but we have alchemy here every day in food, ideas and conversations so why not have an alchemy of time? It turns out we do, but more on that in a bit.

And then there are connections. We utterly love connections, those seemly serendipitous events that make you go hmm, they are all over and bring exciting new threads of discovery as we stumble on them, as my flatmate recently reflected on in her blog.

This week I've been working on compiling an anthology of my rather awful poetry. The reason why was simple, I wanted to be able to read them on my Kindle and I wanted to revisit some dark places. I write from the heart and much of what I write is probably unintelligible without the context, and I'm hardly going to share that.

What struck me profoundly was my perception of the time. The advantage of using a pooter to record my poems was I had a record of exactly when I wrote the poetry down, not necessarily when I created it as I often wrote it longhand or on my phone first, but, close and I tended to set the posting times to match.

The actual time-scale was tiny. Yet the effect that events then were having on my life was both devastating and profound. It's an effect we've all seen, an apparent distortion of the passage of time. As I compiled I came across one poem that summed distortion of time perfectly, there were others, but this one is the almost definitive...

Eyes lock.
Breath felt.
The quickened heart.
A flush
so hard to miss.
Time stands still
as the bubble grows
to shelter
love’s first kiss.

Which brings us back to the connections. As I was pondering this, an email turned up from the Royal Institution promoting, amongst other things, a talk by Claudia Hammond on the subject of time perception. Oooh! Sadly my flatmate couldn't be there as she's busy debauching Belfast so it's up to me to talk about it. Not good as she is obviously the brains of the bunch.

There is one final connection, of course, it being the RI, it meant that once more I would be in the self same lecture theatre were we heard James Burke talking about connections last November. That's apt. With candles. And little sparkly bits that light up the word apt.

As an opener, Claudia talked about Alan Johnson, a BBC reporter that was kidnapped in 2007 for 4 months. The initial task was to see if we could remember when this was. Trouble is at the time (I checked when I got back to Contrary Towers) of the kidnap in March 2007 I was coming out of having my hormone system switched off and having daily injections to reboot me, for want of a better phrase, I can remember almost nothing of the period. Which I know is a dreadful thing to say, but I am glad it turned out okay for Alan.

Before we got to the date, Claudia talked about the times when time slows down. Many of us have had those moments when something dreadful happens and time literally seems to slow down, I've had it on a motorcycle as I headed straight towards a car that decided to swing back on a road, my friend obotheclown had something similar when, I believe, he was out in the clown mobile. My first true experience of time slowing down was when I was 11 and trapped in an upturned yacht in an air pocket. I was there perhaps ten minutes, it felt like an eternity.

And this was her first point. At times of extreme stress we observe the effect. The idea, as she explained, was that at these times we build memories. Lots of memories. And this makes perfect sense. When the mundane is taken away and replaced with the extraordinary you will absorb every detail. But, as she explained, it's not just about the real level of danger or stress. The danger could, simply, be perceived.

The example, again, was Mr Johnston.

During his captivity he was allowed a wireless and on this he could listen to the BBC World Service. Unfortunately he heard news of his execution. Oh. And you get annoyed when somebody tells you who won Britain's got X come dancing?! Time slowed down again. With no information as to whether this was the PR blooper of millennium by the kidnappers or simply a mistake by the press all he could presume was that we was about to die.

I imagine that focuses the mind.

The thing that struck me at this point, and thinking of my own experiences of time distortion, was that it's all about context. Claudia went on to give an alternative context, that of being ill, specifically of having a high temperature. I'm rarely ill, but I do recall a couple of incidents when I must have been as (a) I didn't eat and (b) I was disconnected from my pooter. In both of these I recall time dragging and, thinking about it, I was rather running a temperature. It has to be said, Claudia is a very amusing speaker, the description she gave of the discovery of a connection between a high temperature and a slowing down of time perception raised many a laugh.

The person that made the initial connection was a psychologist. His wife was ill and every time he left the room briefly she complained, on his return, how long he'd been away. So, like any good psychologist, he decided to experiment on his wife ;-) He got her to estimate the passage of time, against his watch, when she was at different temperatures. In total he did this 30 times and recorded the results. These were clear, the perception of time did slow down and, subsequently, this has been confirmed by others.

So fear and temperature. I can get that. But...

Something still didn't add up. What about the kiss? Neither stressful not temperature raising (well, maybe a bit). Claudia moved on to that. A group of people were brought together. They were given time to network (ooh, another connection, must answer an email when I've finished) and then asked to choose who they would like to work with for the next task.

Except it was a fix.

Half of the people were taken, one by one, and it was explained that nobody liked them so they would have to do the task by themselves.

The other half were taken, one by one, and it was explained that they were so astonishingly popular that everyone wanted to work with them, so, would they mind awfully working alone.

So we now have half in the lonely-zone whilst the others were popular-but-working-alone. Sounds about right. You might not be surprised to learn that time slowed down for time lonely. Who would have thought it, emotion pays a part.

And this, suddenly, gives an explanation for my own experience of time standing still during the first kiss. As I think back, and goodness I do often, I can remember every single detail. And then some. The details built, grew. Formed alliances and grew a bit more. It was a profound, deeply emotional, very intense experience and built more memories in seconds than I'd done in several weeks. It's not at all surprising it felt that time stood still with hours passing in what may have been seconds.

I have no idea.

We moved from this on to the hows. How could it be that we can measure time if, as a result of much work there was no single, identifiable clock that allowed us to have a comprehension of time. Bud Craig put forward one suggestion that we count up emotional moments and, almost by definition, we get more with fear. And kissing. Obvs. On one level I like this concept. But still prefer the idea that it slows because we are stuffing the memories in.

We moved on another question. If you were expecting a meeting on Wednesday and the meeting is moved two days forwards, which day is the meeting on? There are two possible answers. I have to say I wasn't wholly convinced with the argument here, it came down to being do you move through time or does time move through you. I have a horrible feeling this was almost a red herring as it was more of a linguistic issue. The issue of precision I've ranted about in the past. Though I will refrain from saying what Claudia said until I've had a chance to ask a few people about which day the meeting should be.


Telescoping. Now being middle aged, though I will point out I am still on the lower age bracket a the RI! I knew there was a reason why I maintained my membership there, the only place on the planet where at 45 I'm not in the fifty-something bracket. I iz thirty something. Perception.

Obviously borked.

Where was I? Oh yes. Telescoping. And this was where Mr Johnston came back in to the room. As it were. Apparently we can remember, what I'll call, world events up to about three years ago. Anything beyond that and we start getting the dates wrong. Because of the emotion of the events we think they were more recent. Why? Memories, more to the point, more memories made.

Brilliant! Err, hold on, but what about my extremely distorted view of events last year?

It turns out that whilst three years is the magic time for world events, on a personal level it's... two months. Oh. So less time than we've been in Contrary Towers. Suddenly my confusion over dates was making sense. My perception was, quite rightly, wrong and, in a perverse way, was normal. I'm normal!

No giggling at the back please.

Next we have another glorious phrase, the holiday paradox. This is essentially stuff happens, we get to the end and it seems like it was much longer than we expected. Huh? The answer, if all the above is right, is simple.


We make them. Normally, in a week, we might remember 6-9 things (I will resist the urge to remove the dash) but on holiday we might remember 6-9 things in a day (still resisting, but much more tricky). In short, holidays last longer because we have more new memories. And the new bit is the key.

New memories. Shiny. Sound familiar?

On the subject of sounding familiar... Predicting time. I live in a world where a millisecond is an eternity but three months is never enough. I am shockingly bad at predicting my time. But, it transpires, I'm normal! Again! Who knew?! I can predict others, but mine? Honestly, I was supposed to be cleaning Contrary Towers, which will be why at 0040 I'm still writing. Just don't tell my flatmate. Our little secret. And in that lays the reason, our perception of how long it will take to do something might be a teensy bit idealised with no allowance for issues or distractions, yet when you look at how long somebody else would take to do something we suddenly become extremely realistic and an awful lot more accurate.

I was singularly pleased by this. The best advice given to the question of how to deal with time the issue of time management was... Do less. Or at least agree to less.


In summary, time might be (effectively) constant, but our perception of time is very much based on the context. I'm only too aware of this on a Contrary Towers day of distractions when we seem to squeeze in an impossible amount of stuff. But, as it turns out, all we do is have new stuff, which makes new memories and, hence, makes it feel we fitted more in.

I guess this shouldn't be a surprise, but it is still quite profound to have it said so explicitly. I have to say I enjoyed the talk very much, I also expect I will enjoy the book Time Warped, though I will point out it's cheaper to get off Amazon, just without the signature, obvs. More importantly I went away with a number of concepts that make sense to me, the distortion of my perception of time has become more understandable.

So the secret to achieve the alchemy of time is: Do interesting new stuff and build new memories. I'm sure Clare, my flatmate, will like that one.

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