8. The New Physics of Time Part 2: The Second Law

“When a man sits with a pretty girl for an hour, it seems like a minute. But let him sit on a hot stove for a minute — and it’s longer than any hour. That’s relativity.”   (Einstein) The Second Law of Temporal Dynamics: The Law of Inversion      

The experience of time in the present (experienced time) is often inversely proportional to the experience of time in the past (remembered time). Remembered time governs the overall experience of time.


In the previous post I shared contrasting perspectives about the passing of equal amounts of chronological time – specifically that in certain situations, time passes very slowly in the present only to compress to almost nothing in the past (example: entering periodical codes in the college library computer). I also shared the inverse example, where time speeds by in the present then expands into memories full of detail (example: first day of vacation).

An important element of these two examples is the consideration of how the event is remembered. Experiential time is primarily based on remembered time, so without including the past temporal perspective a fundamental bias would be introduced: an easy conclusion would be that the the best way to expand time would be by signing up for an endless slog of meaningless tasks or any present reality that slows time. The experiential view of time suggests that this couldn’t be further from the truth. The concepts are complicated though, so we need an easier way to think about it.

Let me introduce the metaphor of a pair of cameras to describe the Second Law of Temporal Dynamics. In the prior example of entering codes into the computer, the camera being used is like a surveillance camera: slow frame, low resolution black and white images with large gaps in between frames. The grainy, black and white low resolution images as that develop require little mental storage space and hence disappear to nothing in memory.

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The second situation of the first day of vacation is more like a high resolution camera set to sports mode with a high frame rate. The images captured are full color, high pixel concentration, and the clicking of the fast frame rate creates the sensation that time is speeding by in the present. But when the day is over, the data captured is rich, and creates the opportunity for the mind to zoom in, replay, rewind, all in full color. The resulting memories fill databanks of storage and the memory of the day expands beyond its hours.

This paradox, this inversion of experienced and remembered time is based on the inner workings of our brains. In order to explain I’ll need to geek out a bit on neuroscience, so skip the below if you are not interested in a neurobiology lesson.

To explain, lets introduce “system 1” and “system 2”. System 1 and system 2 are simple divisions of the brain as popularized by Daniel Kahneman in his great book, “Thinking Fast and Slow” and the names represent labels useful for simple division of brain functioning. System 1 is the “old brain” also called the back brain or lizard / mammalian brain as it evolved billions of years ago. This is the automatic brain of fight or flight, intuition, emotion, and instinct. It doesn’t speak English or any other language but feeds system 2 a host of triggers and emotions that feed our rational thought.

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System 2 is the neocortex or “new brain” and evolved only relatively recently.  It contains language, cognition, memory, planning and the “executive function” – the ability to make decisions based on data. System 2 has its own intuitions, notably that it is “in charge” despite ample data to the contrary. Jonathan Haidt in his book “The Happiness Hypothesis” makes an excellent metaphor that the neocortex is like a tiny rider on the back of an elephant. The rider (system 2) thinks it is in charge, and indeed is as long as there is no significant stimulus to spook the much larger more powerful elephant (system 1) to action. However when there is a roar of a lion, a mouse in the trail, or (heaven forbid) a female elephant nearby, the rider is clearly no longer in charge.

So what do system 1 and system 2 (or the rider and elephant) have to do with the second law of temporal dynamics? As it turns out, plenty.

System 1 is FAST. Being the response mechanism for fight or flight and a host of autonomic responses, the neural pathways for the “old brain” are well paved and many lanes wide. This makes sense as such instinctive responses require instant action. Hemming, hawing and second guessing when faced with a lion on the savannah makes for immediate extinction.  Instinctive responses to danger or other stimulus via system 1 can take place as fast as 30 milliseconds (three-one-hundredths of a second). System 1 has a singularly interesting component in that it has a neural superhighway to communicate swiftly and effectively with system 2.

System 2 is SLOW. Tasking system 2 for a rational neo-cortex evaluation requires 300 – 500 milleseconds – 10 to 15 times longer than system 1. If we have a superhighway from the old brain to the neocortex feeding feelings and instincts, the return path is more like a footpath, slow and narrow. While the elephant can quickly and easily throw the rider when spooked, the rider must rely on a series of carefully constructed gestures to get the elephant to obey.

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So now consider our two examples of the passing of experiential time. In example one, typing periodical codes in the library, this is a purely intellectual system 2 enterprise and hence is processed via the neocortex’s slow circuitry in order to deliver the correct responses. Time slows in the present, as the neocortex agonizes and is forced to exercise mental discipline to complete the task even as system 2 (the elephant, the surveillance camera) pays little attention because elephants care little about the digits of periodical codes and the surveillance camera isn’t picking up anything interesting.

Now consider the second example. Here both sides of the brain are working in tandem – doing activity in line with system 2’s intuitive needs (vacation, pleasure) while utilizing the executive function of system 1 to plan and prioritize. Tasks are repeatedly identified, sorted, and acted. The synchronicity of the two systems becomes a high speed game where things are processed and answers emerge as fast as they are asked. The memories of this activity, this “flow” expand in retrospect as the alignment of system 1 and system 2 allow for the processing of a significant amount of data. System 1 can’t keep up in the present (hence the perception of time racing by), but as the memory function kicks in, the expansive data set available to it creates the temporal space that expands the perception of time. Finding activities that balance system 1 and system 2 is at its most basic, “really living:” the alignment of the rider and the elephant, system 1 and system 2, purpose and desire to take in more of life, to capture more of its color, its sights, it sounds and the underlying palette of emotions. Screen Shot 2013-06-10 at 10.16.43 PMBut wait. There’s more. There is a third metaphorical camera. This 3rd camera is one of ultra high density, ultra high frame rates, and is predicated on a different type of neural pathway. As it turns out there, ARE superhighways back from the neocortex to the back brain, to the limbic system, the amygdala.

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These highways are very specific and are created by the mysterious substance of myelin. Myelin allows for high speed circuits to route information throughout the brain and are formed in two ways 1) natural talent and 2) deliberate practice. In the next post I will spend further explain Myelin. Regardless of how the mylineated circuits are formed they result in something we call “talent” or “strengths” and these capabilities are based, simply, in speed. Myelineated circuits are up to 150X faster than other neural axons and allow for amazing things like hitting a baseball pitched at 100mph, coordinating the arms, legs, ankles and feet of a 100m sprinter to hit 28mph, and for a cellist to play and Edward Elgar concerto. Myelin is the substance that allows for the most important law of temporal dynamics to play out.

Screen Shot 2013-06-09 at 10.57.55 PMWhen two circular superhighways form between the front brain and the back brain, between emotion and logic, between strengths and intuition, the experience of time itself stops, and in the frisson of these “perfect moments” where complete neural alignment exists, pools of time can be created that are so significant, so rich and full, that these events – be they hours, minutes, or just seconds long, are “worth” more in a temporal sense than weeks, months or even years of chronological time. This is the third law:

The Third Law of Temporal Dynamics: The Law of Expansion

The experience of time, under the right combination of environmental factors, can expand well beyond the limitations of chronological time. These pools of time or event horizons can also be referred to as moments of really living.