“I don’t believe it. Another year has flown by.” We tell ourselves that when party ends, the lights come on and the confetti is swept up. After New Year’s, we go back to our routines. Where did the time go?
Time is one of the most arcane subjects of study. Scientists, such as Einstein, have long been fascinated by its complexities, and philosophers have contemplated its apparent plasticity — why does it seem to slow down during some events, yet speed up in others? Or completely disappear during intense moments?
Time is measured, of course, in seconds, minutes and hours, but our human experience of it — how it feels to move through it — is largely a mystery. Neuroscientists aren’t certain where we process time; it has no defined location in the brain, unlike senses for sight, hearing, touch and smell. Our mind constructs the concept of time from the same regions that store past memories and future projections. Since they use the same parts of the brain, from the standpoint of our mind, yesterday and tomorrow are basically the same thing. And that makes our sense of time highly variable.
Researchers are only now beginning to unravel the mysteries of the brain, and how the newness of technology affects it. And it turns out that our pervasive use of gadgets is affecting our experience of time, and reshaping our consciousness in very fundamental ways.
In a seminal experiment to understand how time seems to slow down during traumatic or scary experiences, David Eagleman, a famous neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine, discovered that this “time warping” seems to trick one’s memory. When we’re afraid, an area of the brain, called the amygdala, becomes more active, laying down an extra set of memories that augments data recorded in other regions.
He tried to conduct the experiment on roller coasters, but quickly found that the rides didn’t generate enough fear. Then, he devised a method where volunteers were dropped backwards into a special net from a 150-foot height. Without attached ropes to slow their fall, they reached speeds of 70 miles per hour during the three-second decent.
According to Eagleman, volunteers believed their own fall lasted a third longer than the drops they saw others take.
“In this way, frightening events are associated with richer and denser memories,” he told LiveScience. “And the more memory you have of an event, the longer you believe it took.”
The illusion is related to a phenomenon where time seems to speed up as we grow older. “When you’re a child, you lay down rich memories for all your experiences,” Eagleman added. “When you’re older, you’ve seen it all before and lay down fewer memories. Therefore, when a child looks back at the end of a summer, it seems to have lasted forever; adults think it zoomed by.”
Various stimuli, like interruptions, can affect our sense of time, causing our brains to store memories differently, and our brains respond more strongly to “newness” over repetition. So as technology brings faster and better gadgets into our lives, it’s distorting our memory and sense of time.
Eagleman investigated the impact of newness on memory, and asked volunteers to estimate the duration of a series of flashes. According to NPR, participants believed the first ones lasted longer, due to their newness. When the flashes broke from an certain pattern, they seemed longer, too.
The result is an interesting paradox: a boring event takes longer to sit through, but when we think back, it seems to pass by quickly in our memory. Meanwhile, something exciting flies by, but remembering it is dense with detail, making our sense of its duration stretch out. In other words, boring events have few details to remember, so the brain collapses that sense of duration. But in memories of something meaningful or fun, the richness of detail seems to expand the event’s sense of time in our minds, as well as its importance in our memory.
How does technology fit in?
Gadgets have become a constant distraction and interruption to work, relationships, sleep and other fundamental human experiences. Once mundane events are being broken up by periods of newness, and that makes each boring experience seem to pass by faster. With each moment to pause and read e-mail, post a status or chat online, technology is leaving behind a heavier, richer tapestry of consciousness to draw upon.
The precise impact of gadgets on our perception of time has yet to be measured, but it’s already shown to affect certain cognitive processes of the brain. Instead of remembering facts, for example, people are more likely to remember how to find those facts, in a phenomenon called “transactive memory.”
“We’re not thoughtless empty-headed people who don’t have memories anymore,” Betsy Sparrow, a psychologist that conducted the study at Columbia University, told The Telegraph. “But we are becoming particularly adept at remembering where to go find things. And that’s kind of amazing.”
In terms of biochemistry, constant gadgets use boosts brain chemicals, like dopamine, associated with pleasure. So when technology adds interruptions to our lives, our brains produce an addictive hit of dopamine that researchers say could rewire us to crave constant stimulation. By playing to our primitive impulses, the ones that respond to immediate threats and opportunities, gadgets are changing the way we think and behave.
“The technology is rewiring our brains,” Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute of Drug Abuse, told the New York Times.
Researchers aren’t certain if this is a benefit or it causes undue stress. As a backlash to an increasingly wired lifestyle, people are exploring methods to slow down, or completely abstain from technology, to recharge and pay closer attention to the analog world.
The human brain can grow and make new connections, and exploring the impact of technology on its inner workings is only beginning. There is already evidence that technology is making time move faster for us collectively. According to IEEE, a 62-year old, in 1997, perceived time nearly eight times faster than he would in 1897.
How we perceive the speed of time has a significant long-term impact on our productivity, lifestyle and ability to cope with the rapid pace of changes wrought by technology. As we speed into the future, time seems like it’s moving faster. But whether that’s from enjoyment, or from trying to keep up with modern lifestyles, remains unknown.
The ability for us to hold the past, present and future in our mind is a hallmark of our consciousness. Without a way to juggle the various dimensions of time, we would never have evolved key innovations: agriculture, for example, or anything related the observation of cause and effect.
Indeed, devastating psychological and neurological disorders, like schizophrenia, shows that how an impairment of the perception of time, and the ability to build, retain and recall memories can destroy our sense of self and enjoyment of life.
Yet we don’t have a complete picture on how the brain pieces together the perception of time, making it one of the last frontiers of understanding, and one of the most enduring human mysteries. Scientists are only beginning to unravel the brain’s inner workings, and how we perceive it — even as the rapid pace of technology continues to affect our delicate balance of time. ♦