Are we born into time, or is time born into us?
Welcome to Why Time Flies: A Mostly Scientific Investigation—my personal quest to understand the clocks that tick inside us all.
We all sense that lived time is different from clock time—that our experience of time changes with one's mood, age, and level of busy-ness. But why? The physical and mathematical essence of time continues to be debated by physicists and cosmologists. What interested me is how time manifests itself in me, in us, in all living organisms: how it's interpreted and told by the cells and sub-cellular machinery, and how that telling trickles upward into the neurobiology, psychology, social life, and consciousness of our species.
So I traveled among time researchers and various ologists to find answers to questions that have long plagued me—and perhaps you too. Why did time seem to last longer when we were kids? Does the experience of time really slow down when you’re in a car crash? Is there a clock in us that counts off the seconds, hours, and days, like the clock in a computer? And if we contain such a clock, how pliable is it? Can I make time speed up, slow down, stop, reverse? How and why does time fly?
Along the way I visited the most accurate clock in the world—which exists only on paper. Discovered that “now” actually happened a split-second ago. Traveled to the Arctic during summer, to try to shake all sense of time. Jumped from a hundred-foot tower, to see if stress would alter my perception of time. And, for one fleeting moment in a neuroscientist’s lab, I even made time go backward.
I also learned that what we call time is a collection of distinct experiences—an awareness of duration, the ability to tell past from future, a sense of "nowness"—that humans come know only gradually. For instance, not until age four or so can children fully distinguish between "before" from "after." Our experience of time is hardly as a priori as Kant proposed; not only is time something that enters us, it takes years to fully do so.
Why Time Flies isn't a book about space-time, although I'm happy to report that scientists have figured out how to add an extra hour to our day in case we someday live on Mars. Rather, it's an intimate exploration of the time that we inhabit and that inhabits us. I promise, you’ll never look at a clock the same way again.