Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Untimely Notions

I’m writing this paragraph while waiting to have a very unwelcome discussion this afternoon with a friend who I hope still will be a friend at the end of it. (It’s a business matter on which I won’t elaborate, but it has significant personal consequences in both directions.) It is something I want to get out of the way as soon as possible. Accordingly, time is passing very very slowly. The day already seems to have passed twice over.

We’ve all experienced the various ways time seems to vary. It slows to a crawl while sitting in a theater audience during a boring play, during moments of fear such as free fall, and when anticipating a single event such as the boiling of the proverbial watched pot. Other events rush up upon us: the next quarter’s property taxes always come due with unseemly rapidity, and rides at Six Flags are over in a flash. Yet, scientists have a hard time pinning down the subjective nature of time. When skydivers in free fall are asked to click the passing seconds (by their own perception) on a counter, for example, they do so just as accurately as when they are standing safely on the ground, even though they afterward claim the fall felt longer than the total number of seconds they themselves clicked. This experiment may miss the point, though; we recognize on some level that a second is still a second, but each second itself is what seems distended. So, our count is right (more or less) while we’re counting, but our recollection of time passages (even just a few moments later) can differ enormously depending on the circumstance.

As long ago as 1868 Karl von Vierordt managed to get a common time misperception named after him. Vierordt’s Law states that people tend to overestimate the duration of short periods of time while underestimating long periods. Related to this law is the telescoping effect, whereby people tend to remember recent events as further back in time than their actual occurrence while remembering distant events as more recent. Then there is the way years fly by more quickly as we age. This may be a proportional sense: 5% of a 20 year-old’s life is 1 year, while 5% of a 50 year-old’s life is 2.5 years; it is not surprising if the two spans seem roughly equivalent to the person old enough to have experienced both.

This is the fourth paragraph and only 6 minutes have passed since I began (including the time to look up von Vierordt). That’s something of a record for one of my blogs. The meeting is still forever and a day away.


  1. Yes, I've noticed that my memory for events has warped with age. Items like my computer seem like fairly recent purchases. But sorry, I picked that puppy up back in 2009. Or when I say, I haven't been blogging too long. Wait, I started in 2007?

    So yeah, time warps happen way too often. Hope your meeting goes as well as it can.

    1. It also doesn't seem at all probable to me that someone born in 1996 is a legal adult.

      Actually everything went OK, thanks.