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Time Stands Still

Jeremy Hueting on the perception of time.

I vaguely recall the case of a teacher who was at the top of a ladder clearing the guttering of his house. The bottom of the ladder was dangerously close to the wall, causing it to be so unstable that, when he leant back to reach into the gutter, the ladder toppled sideways and he fell off. When describing the event later on, the man claimed that time appeared to stand still at the instant that the ladder started to move. His train of thought had gone something like this: As the ladder started to slip he froze every muscle in his body in the hope that it was his movement that was causing the ladder to slide. When he realised that this wasn’t working he searched for something to hold onto but found nothing. He then jumped free of the ladder to begin his decent towards a concrete driveway. Whilst falling he thought of trying to kick out so that he would shift his fall to a soft rose border instead but dismissed the idea when he realised that this wasn’t physically possible. (For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, therefore kicking his legs out would push him as far backwards as it would forwards). Then, he resigned himself to the conclusion that he was about to land on concrete and he focussed his thoughts on trying to land without breaking too many bones. In the event I believe he broke a leg. The interesting thing is that all this happened in, at most, a second or two. His comment was “time stood still”. People who have been in similar circumstances will probably empathise with him.

The question to be asked is this. If we accept that we cannot alter time itself (ie ignoring the various theories on travelling near light speed etc.), then why is it that we can perceive time to pass at different rates? Why does a watched kettle never boil and why does time fly by when you’re busy or having fun?

It seems that under normal circumstances, the rate at which we perceive time to pass is reciprocated by the rate at which we wish it to pass. Is it not possible that the amount of time we feel has passed is proportional to the number of thoughts we have had? That is, when we are thinking very quickly, our minds process more information in a given time and we will feel that real time has actually taken longer to pass. If we have a large quantity of thoughts we assume that a lot of time has passed. This theory is greatly complicated when we take into account factors such as biorhythms and circadian cycles, neurological reaction times and the transfer of information between the conscious and subconscious minds. The study of time passage during dreams is even more complicated, so I’ll ignore it.

Another question is this: How fast can a fly think? It has been claimed that, if a brontosaurus were to meander past your bedroom window, chew on your evergreens (they were vegetarians, you know) and leave footprints in your garden, you could run out armed with a large cutting implement, slice off the end of it’s tail and run back indoors before it knew what you’d done. The theory is that the distance from tail to brain is so great that it would take twenty seconds for the sensation of having its tail hacked off to reach the dinosaur’s brain and be acted upon. Returning to the slightly more readily available housefly, we know that a fly’s reaction time is much shorter than ours. Obviously, the distance from eyes to brain and brain to wings in a fly is very short in comparison to nerve routes in the human body thus reducing the neurological reaction time, i.e. the time taken for information to be processed in the mind and action taken. Also the masses involved are much lower, so that the fly requires less energy to move quickly. But what about the mind itself? A fly can react to the impending doom of a rolled up newspaper with startling rapidity, but is this just a subconscious survival reaction or is the fly actually consciously making decisions about where to fly to? If so, then would the fly perceive the passing of time to be much slower than we do? I’ve tried asking them but they always ignore me. The case of the ladder climber demonstrates the concept of altering perception of time. Unfortunately, a broken leg is an unpleasant price to pay. Neurologists the world over believe that the human mind is a vastly untapped resource. If so, then could mind control techniques be used to enhance your speed of thought, thus stretching time to the fullest?

© J. Hueting 1994

Jel Hueting spends his time in Suffolk

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