Understanding how time “flies.” Or why it doesn’t.

In this blog entry, Michael Flaherty, author of The Textures of Time explains how and why we sense time thee way we do.

We sense time, and our experience of time varies. The events in our lives seem to happen quickly or slowly, more or less often, or in a particular sequence. Silk doesn’t feel the same as sandpaper. Likewise, from a subjective standpoint, time has different textures.

Why is there variation in the textures of time? This question concerns causality as well as temporal experience. When you examine temporal experience, what you see is alternation, the yin and yang of cause and effect: sometimes things happen to us; sometimes we make things happen.

In certain situations, it would appear that time happens to us; our temporal experience seems to result from our circumstances. In other situations, we make time happen; we design or construct our circumstances such that they act back on us to produce a desired form of temporal experience.

With murder, one is a victim of circumstances. In contrast, there is “suicide by cop” where individuals who want to die, but cannot bring themselves to do what is necessary, threaten police officers in an intentional effort to provoke the officers to do the killing for them. Is temporal experience more analogous to murder (where the outcome is imposed on the individual) or suicide by cop (where the individual arranges and desires the outcome)?

Those who study time have done so from the assumption that time happens to us. They think temporal experience is the result of forces in nature or society, forces beyond our ken or control. They view time as somehow “out there,” cosmic, coercive, and indifferent to our desires and inclinations. In so doing, they overlook the ubiquitous ways in which we create our own temporal experience.

For The Textures of Time, my research assistants and I interviewed 406 people from all walks of life. In these interviews, they describe how they attempt to control, manipulate, or customize their own experience of time, or that of others. Their fascinating stories make it clear that we construct much of our temporal experience by means of techniques that I call “time work”–our efforts to provoke or prevent various forms of temporal experience.

In their stories, our subjects describe multiple dimensions of time work. There are efforts to make an interval seem longer or shorter than its objective duration as measured by the clock or calendar. Other respondents decide how often something should happen, thereby exercising control over the frequency or rate at which they experience it. A number of respondents try to customize the sequence or succession (first, second, third, etc.) of their activities or experiences. Some seek the optimal timing of an event, while others make an effort to determine the right allocation of time. There are those who steal time from their employers for the sake of personal business while they are “on the clock.”

Temporal experience does not just happen to us. On the contrary, there is ample evidence of self-determination in the construction of situations to which one wants to respond, not because these situations are ends in themselves but because they are thought to bring about particular types of temporal experience. By virtue of these homespun practices, we are all “doing time.” There is enormous variety in this conduct, and it would appear that no situation is immune from such effort.

Why, then, has this behavior been overlooked? Our subjects acknowledge it readily when prompted by careful questioning, and they frequently take pride in their own ingenuity, but, from an observer’s perspective, there is little to see because so much of this effort is personal, even subjective, and it is often clandestine. Nonetheless, the study of time work reveals the humanly produced origins of our temporal experience.

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