O: In your book, you write about time’s circular definition: Time is a period... which is defined as a length of time. Was considering its nature as maddening as that sentence?

Alan Burdick: It’s daunting, to say the least. During my research I felt like I was in a hall of mirrors. Eventually, I realized all the scientists I was talking to felt the same, and I thought, Well, that’s the book. Rather than tell readers one thing time is, I can tell them that time is lots of things and walk them through each one.

O: Why is there such a difference between “objective” time and the feeling of it?

AB: When we talk about time, we often think of a clock, and when we feel time speed up or slow down, it doesn’t accord with that regimented ticktock.

O: Is our individual experience of time as valid as the segments on a clock?

AB: Yes! In fact, all clocks are subjective, in a way. They run by referencing more accurate clocks to which they’re synchronized, many of which reference a central, most accurate clock known as Coordinated Universal Time. But even that’s just some people in France taking measurements, doing math and deciding what the time should be.

O: Did that change the way you thought about time?

AB: Definitely. Knowing time wasn’t monolithic, I felt my relationship to it didn’t have to be so antagonistic.

O: So time is something we’re all just creating, moment to moment?!

AB: It’s not something that comes down upon us— it comes from us. Saint Augustine wrote about the experience of syllables emerging from his mouth and knowing one was longer than the next. He wondered how he knew that, and he realized it was because his understanding of those syllables’ length took place in his memory and his awareness simultaneously. He saw it was pointless to talk about past, present and future; they’re the same, and we create all of them.

O: How so?

AB: We experience the past in the present (as memories); we experience the future in the present (as expectation); we experience the present in the present (as attention).

O: Whoa. My head hurts. Okay, now that you know more about why time flies, tell us: How do we make it fly a little slower?

AB: I’m not sure we should! The experience of time flying is indicative of enjoyment.

O: But what about those dizzying times when you suddenly realize you’re 50 and not 30 anymore? That’s not so enjoyable.

AB: No, but it’s a sign that you’ve been active and engaged. There’s been research done in geriatric facilities where residents were asked, “How fast does time seem to be going by?” The people who said “quickly” tended to be more active and socially engaged; those who said “slowly” tended to be less active and more depressed. When we say “time flew,” what we mean is we lost track of it, and often that’s because we’re having fun or immersed in what we’re doing. If time is flying, you’re likely doing a good thing.


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