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Three authors on time: reflections on a solar return

Today marks 32 trips around the sun. It’s a cherished time of reflection for me, highlighted by the changing seasons that inspire an introspection and quietude of their own.

The object of my contemplation has been passage of time. Three authors explore the deep facets of our temporal being in their books – Felt Time: The Science of How We Experience Time by Mark Wittman, Why Time Flies: A Mostly Scientific Investigation by Alan Burdick, and Time Travel: A History by James Gleick. Instead of attempting to summarize or recapitulate their work, I am posting selected passages below. 

(h/t to Brainpickings for introducing me to these books and pulling their best quotes and passages.)

Felt Time: The Science of How We Experience Time – Mark Wittman

Presence means becoming aware of a physical and psychic self that is temporally extended. To be self-conscious is to recognize oneself as something that persists through time and is embodied.

Self-consciousness — achieving awareness of one’s own self — emerges on the basis of temporally enduring perception of bodily states that are tied to neural activity in the brain’s insular lobe. The self and time prove to be especially present in boredom. They go missing in the hustle and bustle of everyday life, which results from the acceleration of social processes. Through mindfulness and emotional control, the tempo of life that we experience can be reduced, and we can regain time for ourselves and others.

Perception necessarily encompasses the individual who is doing the perceiving. It is I who perceives. This might seem self-evident. Perception of myself, my ego, occurs naturally when I consider myself. I “feel” and think about myself. But who is the subject if I am the object of my own attention? When I observe myself, after all, I become the object of observation. Clearly, this intangibility of the subject as a subject — and not an object — poses a philosophical problem: as soon as I observe myself, I have already become the object of my observation.

As phenomenological philosophy has determined, self-consciousness is not a mental state that is added on to our experience, or that is particular; rather, it is a feature inherent in all experience. My perception contains me.


On the phenomenal level, consciousness — and the self-consciousness deriving from it — is distinguished by spatial and temporal presence. Consciousness is tied to corporeality and temporality: I experience myself as existing with a body over time.

If one has no time, one has also lost oneself. Distracted by the obligations of everyday activities, we are no longer aware of ourselves… Everything is done all at once, faster and faster, yet no personal balance or meaning can be found. This implies the loss of contact with one’s own self. We also no longer feel “at home” with ourselves and find it difficult to persist in any given activity because we are available at every moment.

In order to feel that one’s life is flowing more slowly — and fully — one might seek out new situations over and over to have novel experiences that, because of their emotional value, are retained by memory over the long term. Greater variety makes a given period of life expand in retrospect. Life passes more slowly. If one challenges oneself consistently, it pays off, over the years, as the feeling of having lived fully — and, most importantly, of having lived for a long time.

Events are subject to more frequent and more detailed recollection when they are connected with feelings. In general, we can say that events are stored because they are charged with a certain level of affect. Alternatively, the episodes in our lives that we remember depend on the feelings we associate with them. The greater the store of lived experience — that is, the more emotional coloration and variety one’s life has — the longer one’s lifetime seems, subjectively.


Studies have demonstrated the ways that a person’s temporal orientation affects everyday behavior. People who are unambiguously present-oriented, for example, stand out insofar as they live relatively dangerously: they tend to take more drugs, get more speeding tickets, have more unprotected sex, and so on. It sounds like the motto of rock stars in the sixties: “Live fast, love hard, die young.” The attitude toward life expressed in these words is surely to be understood as a reaction to the future-orientation that otherwise prevailed at the time, as a perceived lack of spontaneity and lust for life. “Sensation-seeking” — pursuing distraction and new experiences — is related to both impulsiveness and present-orientedness, even if it is not quite the same thing as either. That said, orientation in the present proves essential for achieving a positive quality of life… This perspective acquires a negative quality only when it becomes too pronounced and the individual in question loses the capacity to act freely inasmuch as she or he cannot break out of the present moment and plan for the future.

People who meticulously pay attention to every entry in their calendars and are largely trapped by the future perspective — those who are always working toward a goal — forgo opportunities for experience. Time that is felt and lived, that is, a life rich in positive experiences, is made up of moments of fulfillment, often in the company of good friends or a beloved partner. Therefore, whether one lives out the moment or pursues gain over the long term is a matter of emotionally intelligent conduct and weighing decisions. Someone who is free and full of life does not always choose to delay gratification; rather, she or he is smart about when to seek enjoyment and when to wait.

Why Time Flies: A Mostly Scientific Investigation – Alan Burdick

Time is a social phenomenon. This property is not incidental to time; it is its essence. Time, equally in single cells as in their human conglomerates, is the engine of interaction. A single clock works only as long as it refers, sooner or later, obviously or not, to the other clocks around it. One can rage about it, and we do. But without a clock and the dais of time, we each rage in silence, alone.

The key ingredient seems to be a physiological response called arousal, which isn’t what you might think. In experimental psychology, “arousal” refers to the degree to which the body is preparing itself to act in some manner. It’s measured through heart rate and the skin’s electrical conductivity; sometimes subjects are asked to rate their own arousal in comparison to images of faces or puppet figures. Arousal can be thought of as the physiological expression of one’s emotions or, perhaps, as a precursor of physical action; in practice there may be little difference. By standard measures, anger is the most arousing emotion, for viewer and angry person alike, followed by fear, then happiness, then sadness. Arousal is thought to accelerate the pacemaker, causing more ticks than usual to accumulate in a given interval, thereby making emotionally laden images seem to last longer than others of equal duration… Physiologists and psychologists think of arousal as a primed physical state — not moving but poised to move. When we see movement, even implied movement in a static image, the thinking goes, we enact that movement internally. In a sense, arousal is a measure of your ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes.

A slower clock ticks less often in a given interval of time; fewer ticks accumulate, so the interval is judged to be briefer than it actually is. Perceiving or remembering an elderly person induces the viewer to reenact, or simulate, their bodily states, namely their slow movement.

Our shared temporal distortions can be thought of as manifestations of empathy; after all, to embody another’s time is to place oneself in his or her skin. We imitate each other’s gestures and emotions — but we’re more likely to do so, studies find, with people with whom we identify or whose company we would like to share.


Our slightest social exchanges — our glances, our smiles and frowns — gain potency from our ability to synchronize them among ourselves, Droit-Volet notes. We bend time to make time with one another, and the many temporal distortions we experience are indicators of empathy; the better able I am to envisage myself in your body and your state of mind, and you in mine, the better we can each recognize a threat, an ally, a friend, or someone in need. But empathy is a fairly sophisticated trait, a mark of emotional adulthood; it takes learning and time. As children grow and develop empathy, they gain a better sense of how to navigate the social world. Put another way, it may be that a critical aspect of growing up is learning how to bend our time in step with others. We may be born alone, but childhood ends with a synchrony of clocks, as we lend ourselves fully to the contagion of time.

Time Travel: A History – James Gleick

We go back and forth between being time’s master and its victim. Time is ours to use, and then we are at its mercy. I wasted time, and now doth time waste me, says Richard II; For now hath time made me his numbering clock. If you say that an activity wastes time, implying a substance in finite supply, and then you say that it fills time, implying a sort of container, have you contradicted yourself? Are you confused? Are you committing a failure of logic? None of those. On the contrary, you are a clever creature, when it comes to time, and you can keep more than one idea in your head. Language is imperfect; poetry, perfectly imperfect. We can occupy the time and pass the time in the same breath. We can devour time or languish in its slow-chapp’d power.

The universe does what it does. We perceive change, perceive motion, and try to make sense of the teeming, blooming confusion. The hard problem, in other words, is consciousness. We’re back where we started, with Wells’s Time Traveller, insisting that the only difference between time and space is that “our consciousness moves along it,” just before Einstein and Minkowski said the same. Physicists have developed a love-hate relationship with the problem of the self. On the one hand it’s none of their business — leave it to the (mere) psychologists. On the other hand, trying to extricate the observer — the measurer, the accumulator of information — from the cool description of nature has turned out to be impossible. Our consciousness is not some magical onlooker; it is a part of the universe it tries to contemplate.

The mind is what we experience most immediately and what does the experiencing. It is subject to the arrow of time. It creates memories as it goes. It models the world and continually compares these models with their predecessors. Whatever consciousness will turn out to be, it’s not a moving flashlight illuminating successive slices of the four-dimensional space-time continuum. It is a dynamical system, occurring in time, evolving in time, able to absorb bits of information from the past and process them, and able as well to create anticipation for the future.


What is time? Things change, and time is how we keep track.

How do we construct the self? Can there be memory without consciousness? Obviously not. Or obviously. It depends what you mean by memory. A rat learns to run a maze — does it remember the maze? If memory is the perpetuation of information, then the least conscious of organisms possess it. So do computers, whose memory we measure in bytes. So does a gravestone. But if memory is the action of recollection, the act of remembrance, then it implies an ability to hold in the mind two constructs, one representing the present and another representing the past, and to compare them, one against the other. How did we learn to distinguish memory from experience? When something misfires and we experience the present as if it were a memory, we call that déjà vu. Considering déjà vu — an illusion or pathology — we might marvel at the ordinary business of remembering.

If we have only the one universe — if the universe is all there is — then time murders possibility. It erases the lives we might have had.

We have to ask these questions, don’t we? Is the world we have the only world possible? Could everything have turned out differently? What if you could not only kill Hitler and see what happens, but you could go back again and again, making improvements, tweaking the timeline, like the weatherman Phil (Bill Murray) in one of the greatest of all time-travel movies, reliving Groundhog Day until finally he gets it right.

Is this the best of all possible worlds? If you had a time machine, would you kill Hitler?

Why do we need time travel? All the answers come down to one. To elude death.

Time is a killer. Everyone knows that. Time will bury us. I wasted time, and now doth time waste me. Time makes dust of all things. Time’s winged chariot isn’t taking us anywhere good.

How aptly named, the time beyond death: the Hereafter.

You lived; you will always have lived. Death does not erase your life. It is mere punctuation. If only time could be seen whole, then you could see the past remaining intact, instead of vanishing in the rearview mirror. There is your immortality. Frozen in amber.

For me the price of denying death in this way is denying life.

When the future vanishes into the past so quickly, what remains is a kind of atemporality, a present tense in which temporal order feels as arbitrary as alphabetical order. We say that the present is real—yet it flows through our fingers like quicksilver.

Brightness into brightness

In a final consideration of time and its rapid passage, I recall a section from Sarah Manguso’s unforgettable memoir Two Kinds of Decay:

There are 2 kinds of decay: mine and everyone else’s.

Most people consider their own suffering a widely applicable model, and I am no exception.

This is suffering’s lesson: pay attention. The important part might come in a form you do not recognize.

You might not know how to love it.

But to pay attention is to love everything.

To see the future as brightness.

Everything that happens is the last time it happens. We see things only as their own fatal brightness, and there is nothing after that brightness.

You can’t learn from remembering. You can’t learn from guessing.

You can only learn from moving forward at the rate you are moved, as brightness, into brightness.

From my bright heart to yours, thank you for being here with me.

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