Science

THIS is How Time Rules Your Body—And Your Social Life

We have clocks in our bodies down to the cellular level.

We can’t smell it, we can’t taste it, we can’t hear it or touch it, but time is with us every second of our lives. And for thousands of years, philosophers and psychologists, from St. Augustine to William James, have pondered its meaning and how we perceive it. For his book Why Time Flies: A Mostly Scientific Investigation, Alan Burdick, who refused to wear a watch for much of his life, set off on a journey in search of time, which took him from a research station in the Arctic to the office of Coordinated Universal Time in Paris.

Speaking from his home in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, Burdick explains how having twins changed his ideas about time, why as far back as the Romans people have complained about being slaves to time, and how new discoveries in neuroscience show that our bodies are filled with clocks.

It’s ironic that, for many years, the author of a book about time refused to wear a watch. Why was that? And how did your perception of time change after you finally relented?

[Laughs] I started this book some time ago, when I was rather a different person. I really was of the mind that if I could take the time off of me physically, that I somehow made it go away. Part of it was that I am prone to think about mortality.

Having a watch on me felt like being a grown up! It meant plugging into, and being subject to, all the things that time requires, like being on time, and it made me feel like my day was chopped up into little bits and my watch was going to parse them out to me, like pellets to a rat. And I didn’t want to be a rat. [Laughs]

I used to think that this was a modern outlook but I came across a great quote from a Roman poet, complaining about the sundial and how awful it is that it chops our days up into hours. [Laughs] So my complaint about time is not a particularly new one.

A lot of other things changed, too. In my case, I had a family—two fraternal twin boys, ten years old—and that forced me to be on time and get more things done than I used to be able to. I had to come to peace with it in that regard. Also, the more I learned about my subject, the more I came to appreciate the extent to which time and timing is embedded in every aspect of our social lives.

You and I are going to have a conversation on such-and-such date at such-and-such time and, in order to do that, the time on your watch in the U.K. has to exactly match my time in the U.S. That’s all made possible by this incredible process that goes into making universal coordinated time, which involves atomic clocks and this global coordinated operation.

I used to think that this was a modern outlook but I came across a great quote from a Roman poet, complaining about the sundial and how awful it is that it chops our days up into hours. [Laughs] So my complaint about time is not a particularly new one.

A lot of other things changed, too. In my case, I had a family—two fraternal twin boys, ten years old—and that forced me to be on time and get more things done than I used to be able to. I had to come to peace with it in that regard. Also, the more I learned about my subject, the more I came to appreciate the extent to which time and timing is embedded in every aspect of our social lives.

You and I are going to have a conversation on such-and-such date at such-and-such time and, in order to do that, the time on your watch in the U.K. has to exactly match my time in the U.S. That’s all made possible by this incredible process that goes into making universal coordinated time, which involves atomic clocks and this global coordinated operation.

One of the most original ideas in your book is that “time is contagious” and even leads us to feel empathy for one another. Unpack that idea for us.

[Laughs] Yeah, it’s super weird! We can come at it from a bunch of different ways. One is that research has found that when people are in conversation in person, there are all these things we do without even noticing. If we’re having lunch, you and I will unconsciously pick up our forks more or less at the same time.

There’s a great study about two people playing the game Whack-A-Mole. Even though they were competing against each other, their movements fell into synch, even at the expense of losing points. They would unconsciously work toward this synchrony. The more affiliated and friendly you are with that other person, the more you are in synch.

If I watch a video of two people talking, I will be able to tell, unconsciously, how friendly they are, based on the extent to which their movements fall into synch with each other.

The difference between a fake and real smile is a matter of milliseconds. It’s incredibly important to know the difference, right? And, in order to tell the difference, you need, as a viewer, to have a really sensitive timing mechanism that can parse one from the other.

We have these clocks in us, which are operating all the time. It’s a very open question where exactly in the brain they are and how they work. But it’s clear that they’re there and utterly essential to making our social interactions go smoothly.

source: nationalgeographic

 

 

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