Monday, March 3, 2014


This is (with any luck) my last semester of undergrad, and there is something about that idea that has made me more acutely aware of time than ever. I just need to push through these last three months, and I can expect to hear from Grad Schools in the next few weeks, and I can’t waste another minute watching TV or scrolling through pages of enticing links.

I will occasionally attempt to map out an entire week of productivity for the sake of mastering time, but it never works. I always end up losing track of time, or biding it, or violently killing it for no reason. We tend to talk about “time management” as though a clear head and firm hand can put the steady flow of seconds to work for a common end. For me, it has never worked that way. Instead, time takes on a frightening menace. It’s a countdown attached to a bomb that will ruin my life, and each second wasted is one second less in which to defuse it.

Sometimes, when I’m starting to feel particularly obsessed and oppressed by the ceaseless accumulation of moments, I like to gain some perspective by reminding myself that the way we understand time is completely false. For instance:
We all live in the past. Because the electrical impulses of your nervous system take time to reach your brain from your various outlying areas, you experience everything about 8 milliseconds after it actually happened. That number varies depending on the distance between your feet and your head, but your body actually delays sensations from the body parts nearest to your brain, so they can be synchronized with sensations that had to travel the further. This is why, if you touch your toes to your nose, you will feel it in both body parts at the same time—and in your ruptured spine for the rest of your life. The effect of this is that taller people actually live further in the past than short people (which I suspect is what all those scary commercials about Mayor de Blasio were referring to).

Another interesting way in which your brain manipulates your perception of time is by making your vision seamless. When you move your eyes quickly, your vision takes a moment to adjust from the blur of motion. Rather than having the world around you go smudgy, your brain just goes back in time and fills in the blanks with whatever you’re looking at when you can see again (your brain can add these little edits because, as you’ll recall, you live in the past). You can observe the result of this phenomenon the next time you encounter a clock with a ticking second hand. By shooting a glance at that clock, you will occasionally catch it at just the right moment to make the second hand appear to freeze for longer than a second. That’s your brain lying to you. Either that, or you are the character Hiro, from Heroes (which will apparently be airing new episodes in 2015, because TV executives live further in the past than the rest of us).

There are also cultural quirks to the way we perceive time. You may never question the idea that the future is ahead of us, but the Aymara people of Bolivia and Peru give time the exact opposite spatial arrangement, so that they speak of the past as in front of them, and the future behind. This is so alien to our understanding that it almost sounds crazy. At the same time, there is a certain poetry to the sense that the future is what we can’t see. It also suggests a metaphor for life as one of those rear-facing seats in an old station wagon—which were always my favorite spot.

In Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut famously proposed an alien species that was able to see all of cause and effect at once. In this view, past and future coexist, the totality of events is one structure, and a human being is a sort of 80-year-long snake. What’s particularly interesting about this idea is that it’s kind of true. When you consider the Newtonian insight that action and reaction are equal, time makes as much sense forward as backward, and should really be considered only as a whole.

And finally, there is Einstein’s clock-shattering insight that there is no objective time. Time being only the potential for movement, and that potential being affected by local gravity and relative speed, time passes for each of us just a tiny bit differently.

So, Professor, if you really think we should discuss the “lateness” of my paper, maybe we should first establish what “late” even means.


Keith Baldwin


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