Do We Each Experience Time Differently?

Jul 30, 2016 | Science and Technology

Published: The Good Men Project (July 30, 2016)

“It appears therefore more natural to think of physical reality as a four dimensional existence, instead of, as hitherto, the evolution of a three dimensional existence.”

This is a quote from Albert Einstein, who offered it to explain how the past and future both co-exist in the present moment. When Einstein made this observation, he was referring to how physical forces like speed and gravitational pull influence how each body experiences time. Since then, psychologists have learned that individual organisms will also experience time differently based on factors like age and the accumulation of memories.

Yet I’ve often wondered if people can experience time differently for reasons other than their internal chronology or the fundamental laws of matter. In particular, I’d like to explore whether our intellectual conceptualizations of time can influence how we perceive it in our day-to-day lives. I have no research of my own to back up the hypotheses I’ll lay out here, and I wasn’t able to find any scientific or philosophical sources that touched on these same subjects, so everything I’m about to say is based on my own speculation.

My guess is that there are two primary ways in which one’s intellectual understanding of time influences personal interactions with it:

  1. If you have an early familiarity not only with specific events from the past, but the patterns within those events that tend to dictate certain outcomes, you can interpret present and potentially future events within the context of what we know about history.
  2. Similarly, if you can map out the history of one’s own life and discern certain patterns, you can view your own past and potential futures as one and the same with your present.

As an example of #1, I point to a trend I’ve tried to point out throughout the American presidential election. As I’ve written in several pieces for Salon and Quartz, American liberals have developed a habit of abandoning Democratic tickets that they feel are insufficiently liberal and, as a result, facilitating the election of a Republican president who is far worse. The two main examples are the 1968 election (in which Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy supporters refused to back Hubert Humphrey, thus electing Richard Nixon) and the 2000 election (in which Ralph Nader supporters refused to back Al Gore, thus electing George W. Bush). When I see Bernie Sanders supporters mouthing past logic in order to justify not backing Hillary Clinton – a logic that ultimately resulted in the carpet bombing of Cambodia, Watergate, the Iraq war, and an unprecedented redistribution of wealth from the rich to the poor – I can’t help but shudder at the thought of this pattern repeating itself in 2016, with its beneficiary being Donald Trump. Visions of race riots, trade wars, and a radioactive cloud loom in the distance.

While much of this is simply being drawn from my knowledge of the past, I wonder if there is an emotional difference being felt by liberals who feel the same way that I do and the progressives with a “Bernie or Bust” mentality. For those of us who lived through and recall these events (like myself and the 2000 election), to what extent are we being influenced by our sense of immediate closeness to that chapter of the past? For of those of us who only read about these events in books (like myself and the 1968 election), to what extent are we capable of feeling the past’s relevance to the present even when our personal connection with it is entirely abstract? As for the progressives who can’t intuitively grasp the past’s relevance to the present – who may be able to conceptualize it, sure, but fail to perceive its tangible relevance – why is this the case? Can anything be done to rectify it?

For example #2, I need to get more personal. I’ve often written about how difficult it is for me to accept it when friends, exes, and other people close to me “freeze me out.” One friend observed that it may be because certain people perceive their own personal histories differently, and as a result what feels like ancient history to others may always seem more current to them. I suspect she may be right, and to this notion I would add that I’ve noticed that there are two ways in which people will discuss their own past. On the one hand, there are those (myself included) who seem to organize everything according to a linear model and attempt to analyze details for their greater significance; on the other, you have those who view their pasts as a series of stories, each one more or less disconnected from the others. As someone who falls into the former category, I’ve found it difficult to emotionally disconnect from the past, since I can always detect its vibrations in the present. Whether this is true for others like me I can’t say, and the same goes for what is or isn’t true for those who aren’t. Hopefully future scientists will see fit to study this subject, since I suspect a great number of psychological ailments can be better understood when viewed through this paradigm.

Like I said before, I’m not pretending to be an expert on the physics of the fourth dimension. My gigs are those of a writer and graduate student, both in the humanities, and so this article has not been my bailiwick. Nevertheless, I find myself internally mulling over these questions quite often, and have long itched to put my thoughts on digital paper. What’s the point of having my own column if I don’t every so often use it for musings like this?