Sunday, 18 December 2011

The Weirdness of Time

Ever since I was a kid I have been fascinated by the bendiness of time. It amazed me that two hours spent watching a film could flash by in seemingly no time at all but that two hours of church on Sunday could drag on and on and on…and on. Once I thought I could even see new grey hairs appearing on the head of the person sitting in front of me. Church time dragged that badly. Time going slowly wasn’t always a bad thing. In primary school it meant that the six weeks of summer school holidays seemed to last forever and when school started again my friends would have visibly grown or changed over that time. Seems odd to think about it now when six weeks can fly by and nothing seems to change at all. Actually it’s not just weeks that fly by as I get older, whole bloody years seem to evaporate before my eyes. Didn’t we just have Christmas like ten minutes ago?
My first real taste of how bendy and flexible time could be was in a psychology class at college called ‘Altered States of Consciousness’ and Len Kane, if you’re out there, you were one of the best damned teachers I ever had. The class took place in the evening and the first thing Len did was teach us a few basic relaxation and meditation techniques. So each class would start with everyone lying down for ten minutes practising those techniques. It was a fine way to start a class, even if some of us nodded off and started snoring. After we’d been doing this for a few weeks one night Len said, ‘Ok I’m going to play some music now. When it stops I want you to come back to full consciousness.’ Once we’d all sat up, Len asked us how long we thought the music had played. The guesses ranged between 6 minutes and 12 minutes. Len just smiled and said that it was only 90 seconds long. Which surprised us all, but proved that time can flow differently depending on what physical state you are in.
The next experience I had with bendy time was when I became a comedian. It didn’t happen often but occasionally I’d forget what I was going to say next or someone would heckle me and for a moment on stage I’d freeze. As my mind raced frantically to figure out what to say next, time would sort of telescope and start running at different speeds. In the outside world, probably less than 5 seconds would go by before I spoke again, but on the inside that 5 seconds would feel like minutes. I could have whole conversations in my head and re-run routines to figure out which bit I’d missed, all in the space of 5 seconds. It’s a very odd feeling.
So I have a bit of experience with the nature of time and how it can telescope in and out and run at different speeds, but I was still astonished by something that happened a few years ago. Thanks to the joys of telephone banking, I can now tell you precisely how many coherent thoughts I can have in the space of a second. For those of you who haven’t used telephone banking, when you ring up to get an account balance, an automated voice tells you much money you have in the account. The pre-recorded voice runs at normal speed until it comes to the actual dollar amount. That bit can’t be pre-recorded so it takes a bit longer to say the dollar amount as the computer pulls from its files the right sequence of words to match the numbers. As a result it sounds a bit like this: ‘You have…two…hundred…and…thirty…two…dollars in your account.’ The time gap between the numbers is less than a second. It’s noticeably slower than the rest of the message but not too annoying.
So here’s the background to my little adventure. I had about a hundred dollars in my account. I was waiting for two payments to come in. If just one had been deposited in my account it would have gone up to over five hundred dollars. If both the amounts had gone in, it would have been over a thousand dollars in my account. So when I rang to get my account balance I was really hoping to hear an amount in excess of one hundred dollars. When the computer voice started saying my account balance, the first number I heard was, ‘You have…one…’, and everything you are about to read happened before the next number was said. First came the absolutely-speed-of-light assumption that my account still had only one hundred odd dollars in it. Then came a whole bunch of quick thoughts; ‘What?! At least one of those cheques should have come in! That gig was four bloody weeks ago. We’re going to have to make another follow-up phone call. Damn it!’ And then the voice said the second number, ‘…thousand…’. Both the cheques had gone in. Happy days.
But when I got off the phone and thought about what had happened, I was quite stunned that by a computer quirk I know knew that I could have five coherent thoughts in less than a second. I find that mind boggling. All the thoughts differed in length but seemed to take exactly the same amount of time to unwrap in my brain. And there is simply no way that I could have physically said out loud those five thoughts within the space of a second. I reckon it would take at least 8 seconds to say them. I’d always known that thought was faster than speech, but I was staggered that according to my rough calculations, thought is eight times faster than speech. It explains how writers can pop outside for a cigarette and come back five minutes later with a whole book sketched out in their mind. Because five thoughts a second means that you can have 1500 thoughts in the space of five minutes. It sounds incredible, but I suspect that it’s true. Unless my brain is a complete freak of nature and thinks faster than anyone else on the planet, which even with my genetic Dutch arrogance I find very difficult to believe. I’m just not that special.
The other implication from this accidental experiment I find a little disturbing. Because by the end of my five thoughts in one second I had built up quite a bit of anger about what I thought were late payments. It only lasted till I heard the second digit, but it was definitely anger. The fact that I could generate genuine anger within the space of a second, I find very scary. It means that I can get angry before I can even say the words to explain why I’m angry. It makes me wonder how many times we get angry before we even know ourselves why we’re angry. It might even be possible that by the time we verbalise it we’re already rationalising and justifying something we didn’t consciously start. It’s enough to make you want to have a Bex and a good lie down. Or have a long chat with a neuroscientist. Or maybe just have a few too many beers and a quiet think. Hmmm, think I’ll go the beer option.

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