By Shayne Silver-Riskin
I still remember my first visit to Denison University. As soon as I climbed up from the parking garage, I looked out in awe at the beautiful trees painting the distance in front of me in autumn colors. Later, during my classroom visit, I felt pulled toward the engaged energy of Dr. Brady’s classroom, as students passionately simulated a session of congress and analyzed congressional procedures. At that time, graduating from college seemed an eternity away. I imagined how I would spend the endless time in front of me on this gorgeous campus that sat atop a hill. But now, only days away from receiving my diploma, I realize that when you blink your eyes at Denison “forever from now” swiftly becomes “next Saturday”. I know time cannot just disappear. Thus, I decided to search for what happened to all of it at Denison.
At first, I thought physicists might have some answers. After all, scientists have pondered time’s existence for hundreds of years. Still, for most of those years, they carried an instinctual but flawed understanding of how it operated. That is, they viewed time as a fixed force in the universe that traveled at the same rate regardless of its place in space. To them, time wasn’t shaped by context– time was context. Although this conceptualization of time failed to function in countless scientific equations, it matched human intuition so strongly that it went essentially unchallenged until the beginning of the 20th century.
Then, in 1905, a soft-spoken patent clerk named Al corrected everyone’s most fundamental understanding of the flow of the cosmos. Al (or Einstein, as he would later be known) discovered that time moved relatively not universally. To come to this conclusion, he observed that a change in one’s position only exists relative to the position of one’s reference point. For instance, one cannot fall down in a void because she will have nothing to fall away from and nothing to fall toward. In other words, one cannot move away from anything when nothing else exists. Moreover, time and space (or spacetime) cannot move in this void because time and space simply measure distance relative to one’s current position. Following this line of logic, because the flow of spacetime only exists relative to one’s position, changing one’s position changes the flow of spacetime.
Einstein expanded from this initial premise to discover that gravity warped time the same way it warped space. The many steps he took from his initial premise of time’s relatively to reach this conclusion involved a fairly complicated understanding of the universe’s geometry that cannot be fully explained in a couple of paragraphs. Still, Einstein’s intricate equations revealed a simple fact. The gravitational pull created by matter with high mass bends space and time. Take our planet for example. The further away one is from Earth’s core, the faster time moves. In even more remote terms, time moves more quickly up on top of Denison’s campus on a hill than it moves in my childhood home that sits closer to Earth’s core. In short, my time physically moves faster when I’m at Denison.
But, in truth, gravity bears little responsibility for the rapid depletion of my time on the hill. Differences in the flow of time between a home on a hill and a home below a hill will not be significant even after a trillion years because they both sit fairly close together on Earth’s surface. More importantly, even if these differences were significant, they would remain imperceivable. This is because my perception of time remains steady relative to the time in my close surroundings or “reference frame”. Just as Earth’s surface appears to be flat because the objects in one’s immediate environment sit on the same level, time appears to be flat because the time in one’s immediate environment sits on the same level. That is, the curving effect of gravity cannot be perceived when standing in one’s own reference frame.
So after Einstein’s failure to explain where my time went, I decided to consult psychologists. Psychologists agree with Einstein’s fluid perspective of time. That is, they note that a variety of factors impact one’s perception of time. From their perspective, however, cognitive mechanisms shape time rather than physical forces. Notably, time appears to move more quickly as anxiety-producing events draw nearer. Psychologists demonstrated this in a lab when they informed subjects that they would receive an electrical shock, but asked these subjects to try to track time to the best of their abilities beforehand. Under these conditions, subjects significantly overestimated how much time had passed.
Psychologists also found that routine speeds up one’s sense of time. In a famous study, psychologists presented subjects with similar images flashing across a screen only to occasionally be interrupted by a radically different image called an “oddball”. Even though all the images appeared on screen for the same amount of time, participants typically perceived the oddball images to last longer. This is likely because the human brain establishes patterns and constructs to understand the world in order to function more efficiently in it. Thus, humans spend less mental energy and require less time to engage with the familiar than they do with the unfamiliar.
Both routine and anxiety offer an explanation of why time races at Denison. Even though my love for Denison’s lively classrooms, beautiful campus, and lovely people has not faded, my surprise with it all has diminished after four years on the hill. It’s no wonder then why my brain doesn’t instinctually pause to notice what Denison offers. Time also passes with particular haste because graduation is particularly close. Like most of my peers, I am excited to graduate, but I’m also anxious to do so. As a result, my brain reacts to time’s passage with greater sensitivity as graduation approaches.
Fortunately, there is one solution that counters all psychological causes of time’s acceleration. As Einstein previously demonstrated, a difference in the rate at which time passes between two reference frames cannot be perceived when one remains present in their own reference frame. Relative to the date of my graduation, my time becomes more scarce each day. That said, time sits still in the present moment. Thus, if I can stay in the present moment (my reference frame), I may be able to stop time or at least expand it.
Psychologists call a temporarily lengthened perception of time “subjective time expansion” (or TSE). To achieve TSE, studies show that one must focus their attention on their immediate environment and moment. One must temporarily ignore their mental shortcuts for interpreting the world and engage with each element of it. In other words, rather than looking out at a garden, one must appreciate each flower. Because children lack the experience to develop sophisticated cognitive shortcuts to perceive the world, they already engage the world in this way. Interestingly, anyone with kids during a long car ride may notice that time seems to pass slower for them. While no one knows for sure why this is the case, significant psychological research places blame on their lack of mental shortcuts. In other words, to children, the whole world looks like oddball images. As a result, children live in the slow-moving present rather than the rapidly approaching future.
In fact, while working with kids off campus, I noticed both the benefits and the costs of this state of mind firsthand. When I’m not writing for onetwentyseven, I’m often tutoring elementary school students on how to read. The most advanced students no longer need to read each letter, but are able to take in whole words or phrases on their own. This usually allows them to read far more quickly than the students that must sound out each letter. Still, there are times when more “advanced” students misread a word that less advanced students would never mistake. Specifically, advanced students occasionally confuse an “a” for a “the” because their brains incorrectly fill in these details. Students who read every letter however are able to take in each detail and thus would never mistake an “a” for a “the”. This behavior exemplifies both the functional need to organize the world into patterns, but also the benefits of occasionally taking time to appreciate the details. That is, both approaches are needed to fully understand the world.
Developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik equates the disorganized nature of a child’s mind with the mind of a person tripping on psychedelic drugs: “when you look at brains under the influence of psychedelics, they seem to look much more like that childhood brain than the adult brain.” Gopnik asserts that psychedelic chemicals impair the brain’s ability to organize the world into established frameworks. Thus, they are forced to engage with each element as if it were novel. Perhaps as a result those on psychedelics usually report having experienced an altered perception of time where time appears to slow down or even stop.
Research into the therapeutic benefits of psychedelic drugs has recently exploded. Temporarily liberated from cognitive frameworks by psychedelics, many report extremely beneficial effects. Under the right conditions, researchers find psychedelic substances allow users to see the world in a new and helpful way. These users briefly leave the constraints of time and find love and euphoria in its place. They claim to feel a strong “sense of presence.” Many even demonstrate a long-term increase in appreciation toward their environment.
Of course, taking LSD is probably not the best approach to slow my time down. Most studies of psychedelic usage take place in therapeutic settings, but most psychedelic usage takes place in recreational settings. Without the help of an experienced mediator, psychedelics often leave users confused and scared. In these cases, users still engage with the world the same way small children read books, but they suffer as a result. That is, they are forced to take in all information in all of its parts and consequently feel frustrated and disoriented. They often obsess over the world outside of them because they cannot find grounding in the world around them. Unable to fully reside in any reference frame, they struggle immensely to find calm.
Einstein, on the other hand, always appears calm in photos. No matter if he plays the violin, sticks his tongue out, or rides a bicycle – in every picture of Einstein, he looks present in the moment. Perhaps this is why he was able to transcend all the established scientific frameworks that dictated the nature of time. Most scientists built upon existing models to understand time, but Einstein created his own. Only by paying attention to the details of the world around him (rather than the frameworks science established to interpret the world) was Einstein able to transcend the limitations placed on time.
If I constantly stopped to look at Denison the way I did on my first visit, I would be unable to get anything done. I would be like a child constantly forced to sound out every letter or like a drug user on a trip unable to clearly see the world. Still, time exists relative to the past and to the future. Returning to my present environment or my current “reference frame” pauses the flow of time. At a time when the future never seemed more significant, it’s easy to forget the present. But no matter how hard I try, I cannot prevent the future from becoming the present. Still, I should at least take time to see the present before it becomes the past.
Shayne Silver-Riskin is a senior political science major. If you ask him “what time is it?”, he will never annoyingly reply with “time for you to get a watch.” But, unfortunately, he may reply by asking “what is time?”