Time is not immutable. Our experience of time – our perception of hours and minutes – follows a largely regulated and cohesive system. Hence, we’re able to organise our lives and let late-comers pay.
There’re two instances whereby we lose sense of time.
Firstly, when one is deprived of his/her senses. In the mid-20th century, scientists carried out extensive sensory deprivation experiments which reduced what their subjects could hear, see and touch. Due to the deprivation of senses, the restless minds eventually conjured hallucinations and subjects began to lose emotional stability and suffered deterioration of mental function.
In 1993, Maurizio Montalbini, a sociologist, spent 366 days in an underground cavern to simulate space mission. When he emerged, he thought he had only passed 219 days as his sleep-wake cycles have almost doubled. In 2008, the BBC aired “Total Isolation” which depicted the experience of six individuals under 48 hours of partial sensory deprivation. Two individuals who have been placed in complete darkness lost their sense of time in less than 24 hours. In Mind Field: Isolation, host Michael Stevens subjected himself to 72 hours of isolation in a sound-proof, fully-lit room. In less than 8 hours, after a nap, he perceived it be about 9am when it was in fact only about 5am.
The above shows how important environment is for accurate perception of time. Once our senses are warped, time moves out of alignment.
Secondly, when one suffers from physiological damage. In Awakenings, late Dr Oliver Sacks recounted on Mr. V who seemed to be stuck in frozen “poses”. In the morning, he would observe Mr. V standing against the door, with his right hand apparently motionless a few inches from his knee. Later, in the middle of the day, his hand would be “frozen” halfway to his nose. Then, a few hours later, his hand would be “frozen” on his glasses or on his nose.
After Mr. V was awakened and accelerated by L-Dopa, Dr. Sacks mentioned the above observations and Mr V. responded:
Mr. V: “What do you mean, “frozen poses”? I was merely wiping my nose!”
Dr. Sacks: “But Miron, this just isn’t possible. Are you telling me that what I saw as frozen poses was your hand in transit to your nose?”
Mr. V: “Of course. What else would they be?”
Dr. Sacks: “But Miron, these poses were many hours apart. Do you mean to tell me that you were taking six hours to wipe your nose?”
Mr. V: “It sounds crazy and scary too. To me they were just normal movements, they took a second. You want to tell me I was taking hours instead of seconds to wipe my nose?”
The above experience shows how our perception of time can be incredibly different if our brain suffers damage from illness.
Henceforth we shall consider “time” in a wider scope, beyond Back to the Future or The Time Machine.