Time is not to be trusted. This should come as news to no one.
Yet recent times have left people feeling betrayed that the reliable metronome laying down the beat of their lives has, in a word, gone bonkers. Time sulked and slipped away, or slogged to a stop, rushing ahead or hanging back unaccountably; it no longer came in tidy lumps clearly clustered in well-defined categories: past, present, future.
“Time doesn’t make sense anymore,” a redditor lately lamented. “It feels quicker. Days, weeks, months it’s going by at 2x speed.” Hundreds agreed—and blamed the pandemic.
I’m surprised anyone is surprised. No one understands time. Time is a notorious trickster, evading the best efforts of scientists to pin it down for thousands of years. Psychologists call it a quagmire. Physicists say it’s a mess, hopeless, the ultimate terrorist. A failure of imagination. There’s nothing new about time being nuts.
Intrigued by the pervasive sense of pandemic-induced time distortion, psychologists at first speculated that loss of temporal landmarks was at work: office, gym, pulling on of pants. Words such as “Blursday” crept into the vocabulary, along with “polycrisis” and “permacrisis,” referring to the plethora of perturbances creating instability, pushing time out of sync: war, climate, politics.
Yet for all the newish research involving linguistics, neuroscience, psychology, scientists have made no real progress. We still know pretty much what we’ve always known: Scary movies and skydiving make time seem eternal, as does waiting for rewards (that call from the Nobel committee) or being bored (are we there yet?). In contrast, being happily immersed in some task (“flow”), facing deadlines, running for a bus, getting old, can make time run fast.
Attempts to find a biological mechanism for time—a single stopwatch in the brain—have likewise gotten nowhere. Rather, the brain teems with timekeepers, tick-tocking at different rates, measuring milliseconds and decades, keeping track of breath, heartbeat, body movements, information from the senses, predictions for the future, memories.
“There are thousands of possible intricate answers, all depending on what exactly scientists are asking,” explained one neuroscientist, sounding much like a physicist—that realm of science that routinely slices time into slivers of seconds, describes the universe a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after its birth, yet still doesn’t have clue how to think about it.
Even the great late physicist John Wheeler, who coined the term black hole for a thing made only of spacetime, was stumped by time itself. He once admitted he couldn’t do better than quote a bit of graffiti he’d read on a men’s room wall: “Time is nature’s way to keep everything from happening at once.”
Philosophers have long told us that time is an illusion; modern physicists agree. That doesn’t add much insight. Illusions are stories the brain creates to make sense of confusing information, the chaos out there and within. This describes nearly everything we think we know. Without time, there’s no way of making a narrative; there’s no way of making a universe.