OUR LIMITED TIME ON EARTH

OPINION
By KLAUS DORING
February 17, 2020

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Most of us tend to think of time as linear, absolute and constantly “running out” – but is that really true? And how can we change our perceptions to feel better about its passing?

While becoming 66 already, I use think about my age. Yes, it's only a number. I know.  “Time” is the most frequently used noun in the English language. We all know what it feels like as time passes. Our present becomes the past as soon as it’s happened; today soon turns into yesterday. If you live in a temperate climate, each year you see the seasons come and go. And as we reach adulthood and beyond, we become increasingly aware of the years flashing by.  

While keep on thinking about age and its consequences, I came along with Claudia Hammond, author of Time Warped: Unlocking The Secrets Of Time Perception.

She wrote that although neuro-scientists have been unable to locate a single clock in brain that is responsible for detecting time passing, humans are surprisingly good at it. If someone tells us they’re arriving in five minutes, we have a rough idea of when to start to look out for them. We have a sense of the weeks and months passing by. As a result, most of us would say that how time functions is fairly obvious: it passes, at a consistent and measurable rate, in a specific direction – from past to future.

Of course, the human perspective of time may not be exclusively biological, but rather shaped by our culture and era. The Amondawa tribe in the Amazon, for example, has no word for “time” – which some say means they don’t have a notion of time as a framework in which events occur. (There are debates over whether this is purely a linguistic argument, or whether they really do perceive time differently.) Meanwhile, it’s hard to know with scientific precision how people conceived of time in the past, as experiments in time perception have only been conducted for the last 150 years.

Physics tells a different story. However much time feels like something that flows in one direction, some scientists beg to differ.

In the last century, my very favored Albert Einstein’s discoveries exploded our concepts of time. He showed us that time is created by things; it wasn’t there waiting for those things to act within it. He demonstrated that time is relative, moving more slowly if an object is moving fast. Events don’t happen in a set order. There isn’t a single universal “now”, in the sense that Newtonian physics would have it.

It is true that many events in the Universe can be put into sequential order – but time is not always segmented neatly into the past, the present and the future. Some physical equations work in either direction. Here, I strongly agree with Claudia Hammond.

One aspect of time perception many of us share is how we think of our own past: as a kind of giant video library, an archive we can dip into to retrieve records of events in our lives.

But psychologists have demonstrated that autobiographical memory is not like that at all. Most of us forget far more than we remember, sometimes forgetting events happened at all, despite others’ insistence that we were there. On occasion even the reminder does nothing to jog our memories.

Several years ago, I started writing my biography. With Beethoven under palms. The great German composer and me under palms. Wow.  Meanwhile, I found out: as we lay down memories, we alter them to make sense of what’s happened. Every time we recall a memory, we reconstruct the events in our mind and even change them to fit in with any new information that might have come to light. And it’s much easier than you might think to convince people that they have had experiences which never happened. The psychologist Elisabeth Loftus has done decades of research on this, persuading people they remember kissing a giant green frog or that they once met Bugs Bunny in Disneyland (as he’s a Warner Bros character, so this can’t have happened). Even recounting an anecdote to our friends can mean our memory of that story goes back into the library slightly altered.

So we shouldn’t curse our memories when they let us down. They’re made to be changeable, in order that we can take millions of fragments of memories from different times of our lives and recombine them to give us endless imaginative possibilities for the future.

Thank you very much Claudia Hammond. I changed my opinion when it comes to time. My limited time on earth.

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Email: doringklaus@gmail.com or follow me in Facebook, Linkedin or Twitter or visit my www.germanexpatinthephilippines.blogspot.com or www.klausdoringsclassicalmusic.blogspot.com .

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