Strange Times

Looking deeper into our weird days.

During the early months of the pandemic lockdown, many people remarked on how strange their experience of time was. Weeks seemed to fly by— Is it Friday, again?—and yet many moments dragged on slowly. 

To researchers who study time, none of this is too surprising. Judgments about durations of time we remember are affected by almost every variable, including lack of salient stimuli, boredom, and our particular mood. Think of each event throughout your day as a tick of an internal clock. If you were lucky enough to not be affected directly by COVID-19 and your daily routine shifted to the virtual realm, one Zoom call likely blended into another and retrospectively the week zipped by because memory didn’t encode many ticks, but in the moment, the monotony made time crawl. 

This common experience is just one example of the difference between what I call “manifest time” and “physical time.” Manifest time is the model of time we use as we navigate through life—our common-sense picture of time drawn from experience. Physical time is the model of time that physics uses to understand the world. Whether the week flew by for you or not, the Earth still spun on its axis seven times. 

As many such temporal illusions demonstrate, these two models can come apart perceptually. Have you ever noticed that when you look at the second hand of a clock, it seems to freeze just as you focus on it? This is an example of the illusion known as chronostasis. The hand does not freeze, of course, but we experience it this way in order to save us from seeing the blur induced by quick eye movement. 

The divide between manifest time and physical time gets very deep. Physics doesn’t characterize time as having a special present moment in it, yet this “now” is crucial to manifest time—it’s what seems to be really happening, after all, and what divides the world into a settled past and open future. Physics describes matter in motion, tracing particles through time; its models don’t require a special, flowing “You Are Here” red dot, as found on a map. But all of human life is organized around these little red dots! Our thought, language and behavior is arranged around this flowing-time structure. 

Physicists and philosophers of science like me typically dismiss this difference as another illusion, the illusion of flowing time. But about 15 years ago I noticed something funny: no one explains this illusion, which I found both odd and unsatisfactory. If it is just an illusion, here we have one of the biggest and most important illusions around— affecting almost all human beings and arguably many animals—and no one really explains it. Chronostasis gets an explanation. Why shouldn‘t one of the most basic features of human life? 

Good philosophy can often take a hard question and transform it into a scientific one. Philosophical thought about intelligence and computability, for instance, led to advances in artificial intelligence and data science. Can we do something similar for manifest time? Can we break it down, really understand it, and explain why critters like us would model time the way we do? 

That’s what my work does. Albert Einstein worried that the “experience of the Now” might not be explainable by science. That was because he was stuck using only physics. To explain an illusion, however, we also need the sciences that describe how human beings work, such as biology and cognitive science. Just as a boring week flying by turns out to be a natural by-product of our memory-based timing system, manifest time in my theory emerges as a natural reaction to the many cognitive and evolutionary challenges that we face. If I’m right, Einstein needn’t have worried. 

So throughout the course of this pandemic, should you find yourself in a boring moment that drags on or at the end of another week that flew by, consider the factors that may have affected that experience. You might find it an appealing way to spend some of that time after all.

Craig Callender is a professor in the UC San Diego Department of Philosophy and co-director of the Institute for Practical Ethics, in the Division of Arts and Humanities. His 2017 book, What Makes Time Special?, won the Lakatos Award, given annually for outstanding contributions to the philosophy of science.