Your Brain Has No Clock – It Does NOT Tick Tock, Tick Tock

This thing here Screen Shot 2014-11-04 at 4.59.17 PM

is quite different than this thing here

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As it turns out, this thing

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doesn't have one of these

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or more accurately it has a whole bunch of these running at different speeds


Time in our brains doesn’t tick tock tick tock with equal density


Time in our brains is dependent on our experiences - and their relative intensity

Time is Like a River, Right?

But wait, time, time is like a river right?Sure time is a river all right, but not this kind of river:


No, time is river; that ebbs and flows, from trickles to rapids, waterfalls and pools, They bend, they bow, they curve, they dry up. In the brain it is the same game, the river of time is to blame, The fact is that we don’t experience time always the same.

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Your Clock Has Been Lying to You...

FullSizeRender This things here: they're a lie.

We’ve been lied to, side-tracked, distracted, manipulated

This ticking, this tocking – this terrible terminal tracking of the ticking of time teaching us trivial untruths:

It taught us that each second is exactly the same,

That each minute, each day, progresses in a linear way

That each is the same distance from the last

That these clicks are an equal measure of the past

How Long Did Summers Last as a Kid?

Screen Shot 2014-11-08 at 3.24.04 PM How long did summers last as a kid?

Splashing into the lake, riding bikes across busy streets.

Crushes, broken hearts, bruises and dirty knees.

We all know summer lasted “forever” as a kid..

Everything was new - we really lived everything we did.

And now? How long do they last, in this world of the mundane?

I don’t know about you but I ache to live endless summers again.

When Quitting is Good

Is quitting ever good? If so, how can you know when it is the right thing to do? Screen Shot 2013-03-24 at 4.26.40 PM

IDEA IN BRIEF: There may be a natural window of time in which it is appropriate to quit which is longer than most people are willing to invest, but shorter than most highly motivated people take. Specifically if you put your best efforts toward something, such as a sport, activity, talent, job, career or relationship, and fail to see growth and returns from your investment of time within about 2 years, then it is probably time to quit – or at least re-frame your approach.

Ample empirical evidence demonstrates the importance of the “don’t quit” advice.  Anecdotal evidence is provided simply by watching typical children grow up around you.  Many of them are excellent quitters. My own daughter wanted to quit basketball, soccer, speedskating, the cello, choir, art and drama camp, all after the first day. Half of these she ultimately quit for the right reason – she did not have a natural talent for the activity. Per my last post, she did not have enough “myelinated circuits” to build from to demonstrate speed or skill in those areas. Conversely, with basketball, art and drama – after some diligent practice, she has exploded with talent in these areas, capabilities she would never have known had she followed her early instincts to quit.

For scientific support and quantitative evidence, the Stanford Marshmallow experiment, conducted since 1972, is perhaps the most famous behavioral research corroborating the idea that to be successful, one must be able to delay gratification and persevere through challenging circumstances: in other words, “not quit.”  In this longitudinal study (still going on) children who were able to delay eating a marshmallow in order to earn two marshmallows a few minutes later were shown repeatedly to have greater success in life – higher SAT’s, greater incomes, great levels of educational achievement and happiness.

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It works. I suspect most of the readers of this blog have mastered the capacity to delay gratification and struggle through a tough present for the promise of a more rewarding future. Yet, for some of us, perhaps many of us, I think this childhood guidance has had unintentional consequences and has subsequently become a collective adult neurosis unintentionally designed to rob us of success and happiness.

Yes, I said it, “a collective adult neurosis. “Wait,” you might say, “That’s crazy!” Exactly. To paraphrase Scott Adams, the author of Dilbert who has wrestled with some of these same questions, “Perseverance is great… until it is stupid.”

The problem emerges slowly. As we master the ability to “tough it out”, we tackle ever larger obstacles and delay gratification ever farther.  At some point a mindset and momentum takes over such that overcoming obstacles becomes the defining drive, and gratification is delayed indefinitely. This is the “graying” of man, a transition away from a life of color and sound and passion into a life like that of Sysiphus – a routinized passionless pursuit pushing a rock up a hill with no promise of joy or completion.

Hearkening back to our marshmallow experiment, it appears that some of us have traded not one marshmallow for two but an infinite number of future marshmallows for an undefined future date.

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When discipline completely replaces inspiration, a kind of desperation sets in – a “quiet” sort as famously described by Thoreau. It is not exactly failure, but what is it then?

“Most men live lives of quiet desperation” - Thoreau

Interestingly, two bits of conventional advice put this quandary directly into perspective.  The first is some commonly used childhood guidance, and the second is some cliched adult wisdom.

1) “If at first you don’t succeed… try, try, try again.”

Now, contrast this with

2) “The definition of insanity is repeating the same thing over and over and over again, and… expecting different results.”

The inherent conflict between these statements is striking. I suspect much of the population needs more focus on the first rule. But there’s another huge cohort of people stuck in the second, banging against the wall.

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Maybe it is you? It certainly was me. I spent years trying to develop endurance as an athlete to no avail.   [embed][/embed]  I spent years in consulting as a program manager, not realizing that I’m not wired to be high on follow through. We see these people all around us, middle managers that never quite make it, mid level competitors that can’t seem to reach the podium, artists with no sales, musicians that never gather a following, and would-be lovers pursuing relationships that never blossom.

Introducing the “Two Year Rule.” Through my own experience and observations of others, it seems to me that when you pursue something fully and completely for up to two years and do not reach a “break-through” level where you feel momentum and have experienced significant improvement and real success, then it is time to quit. Quit that job, quit that sport, change instruments or start composing, write magazine articles rather than novels, and break up with that not-so-romantic partner. Sometimes you even have to break it off with a platonic friend.

One exception – only parents can’t really quit.  If you don’t have a talent for parenting, make sure you surround yourselves with family and friends that can help provide guidance and model the way.

I once read a “success story” of a woman who tried writing a book for 35 years. She struggled, did odd jobs and eventually published a manuscript that received some critical acclaim and sold reasonably well. I don’t look at this as a success.  This seems like an abject failure – someone who missed her true calling and whiled away a life trying to perfect and overcome her weaknesses.

Here’s the final thought.  We all know people who have quit for the right reasons – and they always say the same thing, “That was the best decision I ever made.” This is almost always true because they latch onto something better, something closer to their strengths, something that resonates within their spirit. Maybe it is time for you to quit, to escape the gray chrysalis of weakness and find that place of passion, strength, light and color. Time to fly!

Next post – when quitting is bad… and why the most talented often quit early and often.

The Fiction of Chronological Time: The Reality of Experiential Time

“I don’t believe in chronological time, I don’t believe in chronological time.”


I have written over and over about the expansion and compression of experiential time: that time, as experienced, does not follow the rhythm of the chronological ticking of the clock and instead has its own counter-intuitive yet predictable set of rules. I’ve dedicated my energy to studying these patterns and trying to understand the laws that govern the experience of time in order to maximize our perception of “experiential time” and “really live” longer.


Recently though, I realized something. That like someone born into a religion, cult, culture, creed or time, I have been an unknowing believer in something exactly contrary to the laws that actually govern our existence. I’ve believed the equivalent of “the sun revolves around the earth.”

Specifically, my counter Galilean “theology” is that I count seconds and minutes and days as though they are equal. Part of this makes sense considering most of my life has been chasing them (seconds). That said, I have spent years gaining a very real understanding that experiential time is not linear and that it ebbs and flows based on its own set of laws. Despite this, I, the priest of this new thinking, continue to let this old school chronological thinking dominate my thoughts and planning. Somehow I continue to predict that my experience with time will be linear and chronological and meter out my expectations based on this flawed logic.

Specifically, when it comes to time intervals between key events, my stress or joy about the proximity of an event continues to arbitrarily be valued by the distance measured by chronological time. I do this despite the ample evidence that I should be using a different scale.

EXAMPLE: “If we sail too far west, we will fall off the edge of the earth.”

EXAMPLE: “I won’t see you for 2 weeks: I love you so much so I’m falling apart.”

I have time with my daughter every Wed, and every other weekend. From a chronological point of view, this means there is the possibility that I’ll go 8 days without seeing her on my off weekends. Chronologically, 8 days is a long time and after each of my long-interval Wednesdays I have this terrible moment where I get sad and anxious about our parting.

The reality is, just like any “real” friend, those eight days speed by and in the actual experience of it very little time passes between visits w/ my daughter and we pick up right where we left off. Its just like that best friend you see every few years – “its like no time has passed…” Well that’s right – no “experiential time” has passed. Life is really about the set of experiences that create impacts on your mind and heart, the rest is just noise and should be discounted and compressed.

EXAMPLE: Remember when you had a girlfriend (or boyfriend) that you were crazy about? And maybe he or she was away at college or traveling for work. In chronological time you don’t get see her that often – one, maybe two evenings a week due to travel or even less if colleges are far apart. Using the “the earth is flat” belief system, these gaps in time tend to create intense stress, sadness, “missing her” feelings. But using the logic of experiential time, the massive gravity of the experiences created when you are together are like the event horizons in a black hole – time both accelerates in the present, yet slows, even stops at the same time when you are together creating significant experiences and a sense of expansive time in memory. After you bounce out of orbit time enters a fast forward when you are apart until the next gravitationally intense meeting.

The next time I have to say goodbye to someone I love, I’m going to try and unwind my beliefs in chronological time and coach myself that no matter the interval, I will see her in “no time” – in a few experiential seconds…which will expand into days, weeks and even months of “experiential time” during our time spent together.

Repetition is the key to coaching: “I don’t believe in chronological time, I don’t believe in chronological time.”

People I Owe: Katelina (and a day of Really Living)

A day of “Really Living”

Time is not chronological. Time, is NOT chronological. Part of my theory of the non-linear nature of experiential time is that pockets of time can be compressed and expanded much like the physics of gases and liquids.

On June 15th of 2014 I had one of the best days of my life, a day compressed full of activity and adventure from dawn to dusk and beyond. In full disclosure it was father’s day and the entire day was spent with my 13 ½ year old daughter – an age, with girls, that seems to strike fear into the hearts of parents the world over. In conversation I’ll often hear, heads shaking, “get ready… (for the insanity)” and then ruefully “don’t worry they snap out of it somewhere around 18.”

I’m no genius about being the father a girl this age and occasionally find some of her behavior byzantine in its complexity, her moods sometimes swinging arbitrary within a wide range but I just roll with it. I can’t out-think it or out-logic it so I’ve taken a simple approach with Katelina – I don't try real hard to talk, I just try to “do things”.

Katelina has a quiet intensity about her, a hidden spark that sometimes comes out as mischief, sometimes as “pouncing” where she expresses her affection through various forms of mild loving violence for which she has invented her own lexicon. “Grangling” is a form of love that is revealed through aggressive squeezing, “Nuggling” is her rotating her bony fists to dig into soft spots of muscle like just below the shoulder. “Siscilling” is the worst of them all and is hard to describe other than that it is terrifying. On this particular day she had a twinkle in her eye and I didn't have to pull her into anything – she entered the kitchen that morning with a look of determination. “Papa, whatever you want to do today, let’s do, but first let’s make the best breakfast ever…” I said, “yes, ok, what do you have in mind?” She said, “let’s try poaching eggs – maybe over the ham Chablisienne we made last night?”

And at 9am it began, a 17 hour marathon of “doing” that raced by in the present but left a deep imprint on my psyche. As I’ve written about before, a day of “really living” is day of unique and powerful experiences in which time accelerates in the present but becomes expansive in memory.

We reheated the Chablisienne sauce and the ham, added vinegar to the boiling pot of water and slid in eggs for 2.5 minutes ea. and removed them with a slotted spoon to place them over the ham and sauce. The runny yokes melded with the salty creamy shallot based sauce and it was exquisite. The tone was set for the day.

We cleaned up and then went for a bike ride together, exploring trails near the house on bikes, dodging trees and riding through streams and across bridges. Kat offering up that I should ride another hour so she could shower and I did, returning in time to make lunch.

For lunch we kneaded dough, chopped mushrooms, sliced mozzarella and cooked Italian sausage and pepperoni in order to make upside down pizzas or “pizza pot pies.” These beautiful delicacies bake for 30 minutes at 350 degrees are then flipped into their own pie shells, the mozzarella, chewy and slightly browned, the grease from the pepperoni and sausage melding with the bolognese sauce and chewy crust… one of the world’s great foods.

After lunch we jumped into the convertible and headed up to Crystal Lake to go paddle boarding in an old quarry in the clear blue green water – Kat picked it up immediately – and in a far corner of the lake we jumped off our boards and went for a swim before paddling back.

Returning home we changed and climbed aboard the Yamaha VStar went on a motorcycle ride to Ribfest in Elgin and watched a bit of a concert in the park, Kat holding on to me and balancing easily on the back of the motorcycle as we zoomed around corners and sped by the river. The sun warmed our faces and we would turn and just smile without saying a word.

The sun was beginning its decline when we returned home. A quick change again and we grabbed the backpack with slacklines coiled neatly inside and walked to a nearby park with two of our favorite nicely spaced trees and ratcheted up the lines. We became obsessed with counting steps and trying to get all the way across without any help, practicing for hours well past sunset, listening to our favorite music (Paramour, Foster the People, Alexander Desplat, Sia) on my portable Jambox, the chiaroscuro of the setting sun creating useful contrasts to walk the line.

It was after 9pm when we returned from slacklining, but we were both high energy and hungry enough to make an amazing dinner of cilantro jalapeño crème sauce to go over sherry flambéed shrimp and pasta. We were both physically exhausted having been paddling /cooking / cycling / motorcycling / slack lining for 13 hours, but at 11pm on a Sunday night Kat said simply, “what do you want to do now.”

I replied, that it was finally time for you to watch my favorite movie: Braveheart. And so we sat down and watched it end to end for 2.5 hours and at the end she teared up pretty good and asked me, “why did you make me watch it???” and I asked, “was it a bad movie?” and she said, “no, the best…. But its so sad, I’m so sad!!!”

At 2am in the morning I tucked her into bed, kissed her forehead and repeated the silly secret meaningless yet meaningful refrains I’ve said to her since she was age two, a silly poem meant only for her. When I finished, her not-so-little arms reached up around my neck and she hugged me fiercely before rolling on to her side, her face in the dark resuming its child-like features as she closed her eyes. As I started to stand up from the bed, her little hand latched onto mine and squeezed, saying in a still-little-girl voice, “I love you papa – I hope you had a great day.”

Thank you Katelina for the best papa's day ever. I love you.



A few days later I continued to ruminate on what an amazing day it was so I decided to hand make a thank you card for Kat with pictures from the day. It was a fun little project and was a great way to commemorate the best father’s day ever:








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Friday, February 13, 2015 8:00am - 12:30pm

The Chicago Academy of Sciences Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum 2430 N Cannon Drive Chicago, IL 60614

10. Why We Overestimate Time Spent on Unpleasant Activities

Laura Vanderkam is a time management expert who looks at the rhythms of our days, and finds shortcuts, "hacks" and time savers beyond the obvious to help busy people carve out more time for "other things." Laura studies how people use their time and, in particular, maps how people "say" they use their time (self reported studies) with how they "actually" use their time (American Time Use Study (ATUS) and other studies that capture actual activity. I was fortunate enough to spend time with Laura at a recent gathering of entrepreneurs where she and I were both speakers. Laura recently wrote a fascinating article for Fast Company titled, "Why Do We Think We Don't Sleep Enough?" with the implicit suggestion that we underestimate how much we sleep. She was nice enough to ask me to contibute.

In retrospect it seems we are both studying aspects of cognitive bias with regards to time: Laura is focused on biases around quantitative measurements of time whereas I'm focused on biases around qualitative measurements of time. Both are important.

Here's a bit of our dialog via email:

Question: John, I'm working on a short piece for Fast Company's website on sleep. Serious measurements find that Americans get plenty -- more than 8 hours a night, even for busy demographic groups (working parents of small kids). Yet no one seems to think that. Why is that?

My theory, which I was hoping to get a quote from you on, is that we think unpleasant things consume more time than they do, and pleasant things (read: sleep) consume less time than they do.Also, since pain is more memorable than pleasure, we remember bad nights more than good nights. What do you think? Do you have any thoughts on this you'd be willing to share for the piece?

-------------- Answer 1: (technical)

Your theory is right: we overestimate the time spent on unpleasant tasks and underestimate the time spent in pleasant activities (including sleep) thanks to cognitive bias. Our brains can be divided into two basic systems (Kahneman) - system 1 is automatic, intuitive, and "fast" meaning it operates quickly with little perceived effort. System 2 is rational, computational and effortful.

Thanks to the constant requirement for attention, focus and self control, system 2 activities like work and taking care of kids tend to drag on thanks to the constant awareness of the ticking of the clock. Conversely sleeping, reading an engaging book, or catching up with old friends are predominantly system 1 activities and often result in the perception time racing by.

Add'l thought: self reported studies of this nature include a recency effect that exaggerate these biases. However a longitudinal view of "what's actually remembered" (experiential time) will prove out that sleep and work will be quickly forgotten and only those special moments with kids, traumatic events, and amazing high points will occupy the temporal space of the rear view mirror..

(Example - do you think its true we remember bad nights more than good nights? - I would assert we remember unusually great nights or unusually terrible nights more than "decent" or "not great" nights: that "decent" vs. "not great" nights are a bit of wash - we remember the extremes)

Answer 2: (practical)    

Americans are an achievement oriented society and tend to answer questions in a way that leads to positioning themselves in idealistic terms as hardworking, sacrificing, family oriented members of society. Self reporting sloth, or even "taking good care of one's self" is somewhat anathema to the social accepted viewpoint described above. However, a more realistic question would be, "how much sleep do you thing your neighbor / co workers get? How much TV do they watch? How much time do they spend actually cleaning / taking care of the house or yard?"

There's a good body of evidence that suggests that people who confabulate to produce socially accepted answers will be reasonably realistic about estimates for "other people" very much like themselves.

My opinion is that its actually a mix of both: people do experience a dilation or contraction of time in certain types of activities, and then further bias their answers to fit the mold of social norms.

9. Really Living "Through the Lens" with Mike Durr

Guest Post from Mike Durr, Photographer: Captured Moments of Really Living: My name is Michael Durr and I am a photographer.  In thinking how my images relate to the idea of "really living," I came to a simple conclusion - that photography is essentially just the process of documenting moments in time that create memories of "really living." As I thought of the spectacular moments I have captured - shooting weddings, events, friends and family - I reflected back on what "really living" means to me. For me, there's nothing better than heading out with my camera strapped around my neck to capture the world around me, those memorable moments of loved ones, or a bird in the sunset, or the monstrous trees of the Red Wood Forest, or an odd-ball look of a monkey at the zoo. “Really living” can be interpreted many ways and is probably different for everyone, but for me, "really living" is being able to stop take a deep breath and enjoy the natural world around me and truly see it and experience it, "in the moment."

Photography has always been a passion for me, it is how I see the world. Sharing these experiences, these moments, with others is one of the most rewarding parts of being a photographer.

Brookfield_Zoo2009 Summer Vacation





HeldsburgCA\3 Guys, 5 Dips\Michigan\3 Guys, 5 Dips




Thanks Mike, for sharing your art and eye and frame rate to slow time and show the beauty all around us - John


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.

Screen Shot 2013-06-10 at 10.41.53 PM

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.


5. How does the brain process time?

“Time” is the most commonly used noun in the English language. The word fills our descriptions of the past, present and future. That said scientists and neuroscientists don't actually know how neural time works.brain “Despite its importance to behavior and perception, the neural bases of time perception remain shrouded in mystery.” David M. Eagleman1,

It has been known for centuries that the brain imposes biases on the perception of time, and those biases become more pronounced the shorter the period of time that has passed - an interesting wrinkle I will explore further. For now I will introduce four cognitive influencers of time.

1) There are no sensory receptors dedicated to time. The perception of time is distributed amongst various brain functions and assembled in an ad-hoc fashion as required for the task on hand. Therefore the perception of time is subject to multiple biases.

2) Over short intervals, the brain uses as an approximation for the passing of time its own rate of information processing. The greater the rate of data being processed, the more time associated with the event.

3) Emotion strongly influences the perception of the sense of time. The theory of “embodied cognition” suggests that our brains mirror and create empathic states to the people and situations around us and adjust our internal clocks accordingly.

4) Finally, It can be argued that there is no “present” or “future” at all: that all of our experiences are processed through the 15 second window of our short term memory and hence life is lived and experienced through the lens of the “near past”. If how we anticipate future events is different than how we experience them, and if how we experience them is different than how we remember them, then this notion suggests that of the three temporal perspectives, the third (past, memory) is the most important.

These factors combine to create some interesting paradoxes: as the brain assembles various timing measurements to orchestrate an incredibly complex set of physical, mental and emotional activities, significant departures from chronological time emerge. These anachronisms become particularly acute when the brain becomes highly focused on an intellectually challenging and emotionally pleasurable task and even more so if there is an emotional bond with the environment or people incorporated in the task. Csikszentmihalyi would call this "flow" which is often accompanied by a separation from the sensation of time passing. I believe it is possible to design experiences in the future to "really live" in the present, and create a past worth remembering. This is the entire purpose of this blog:

"Plan a future to really live today, and create a yesterday worth remembering"

More to come on that, for now let me re-introduce 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.

Next Up: I'll share a pair of stories that show this law more clearly.


4. The New Physics of Time Part 1: The First Law

“I can’t stand to think my life is going by so fast and I’m not really living it.”“Nobody ever lives their life all the way up except bullfighters.”

(Robert Cohn and Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway)

The First Law of Temporal Dynamics - Contraction

I'm dying.

I might look healthy, but according to my calculations, I don't have much time left - a couple of years at most and it is going fast.

Don’t worry, this is not some “Last Lecture.” Or maybe it is, for all of us. We are all in the same boat: we are all dying and we all have less time than the calendar of chronological years suggests. If you are a reader of this blog, you probably already feel this. Chronologically I'm only half done, but experientially the story is different.

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Question: Do you feel that time is accelerating? That hours are growing shorter and that each year flies more quickly than the last? Time is the most valuable commodity we have as humans, and it is passing through our hands like so many grains of sand. I want do something about that: how can we manage the actual experience of time?

Eating right and exercising helps a little but solves the wrong problem. In a exponentially accelerating scale, tacking on a few integers does not amount to much in the grand scheme of things, particularly when adding a few years seems to involve a life of asceticism.

Consider another paradigm of time based on our actual experiences – “experiential time.” I have now asked nearly 100 people the following question, "Think back: when you were 8 years old, how long did summer last?" The answer, nearly ubiquitous, is, "forever." Let's scale back "forever" and instead assume that from an experiential standpoint a summer in youth, say, as an 8 year old, feels about the same as a whole year as a 20-something. And that same year as a 20-something starts to feel awfully similar to a decade in middle age.

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If you plot experiential time vs. chronological time, a frightening graph appears. The area under the curve represents a simple measure of “life” and the math is not promising. Here's a simple graph showing this decay in experiential time with markers at age 8, 20, and 50. We've been trying to measure the "area under the curve" with a yardstick of chronology - it doesn't' work and leads to huge errors in our math.

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It gets worse if you plot experiential time linearly keeping the area under the curve (life) constant. Since "experiential time" is merely the area under the curve, we must now take the integral of the equation or simply readjust the x axis according to the logarithmic scale we just shared to figure our "true age" or "life left." When you plot time as we experience it cognitively, a 44 year old with a life expectancy of 86 is not “half done” – rather from an experiential standpoint life is more than 92% over!

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The First Law of Temporal Dynamics: The Law of Contraction

All other factors being held constant, the conduit for the flow of time, as processed through the constraints of cognition, will contract, resulting in the subsequent perception of the acceleration of time.

I'll admit it - this terrifies me. Is anyone else terrified? You should be. Life isn't just half over. We don't have 50 or 40 years in front of us to do all of those bucket list things - NO, life is in its final chords, the fat lady is singing, and we are, practically speaking, nearly dead.


The good news, even great news, is that it doesn't have to be this way - if we accept that time is not linear, that the brain processes time according to a different set of rules, then we can accept the possibility that we can alter the perception of time as processed by the brain, and hence really live "longer."

It is perhaps a cliched notion that "if you cannot add more years to your life, add more life to your years" but the reality of our experiences and the findings of modern neuroscience provide tools and ideas to make this happen.


Let me introduce the first metaphor for the new physics of time - We've all heard time described as a "river" flowing infinitely forward, and infinitely backward - this is a good place to start. To improve the metaphor, consider our experiences with time as if the brain is a "garden hose" through which time flows. What happens when you constrict a fixed flow of water through a garden hose? According the physics principle of (V) = (Q)/(A) the velocity (V) of a flow is indirectly proportional to the cross sectional area of the conduit (A) assuming a fixed flow (Q). This, I believe, perfectly describes what is happening to most of us - we are creating lives that accidentally constrict the passageway for the flow of time and in so doing cause it to accelerate.

Let me demonstrate through the life and times of an 8 year old and his or her garden hose or conduit for time. The two axes that determine the speed of water through a hose are width and height or, breadth and depth.

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Specifically in this case, cross section of the hose is driven by the breadth and depth. The breadth we are talking about is breadth of experience. For an 8 year old, the whole world is NEW. There is so much to find joy in, skipping rocks, running pel-mel into a lake or ocean, fireworks, sledding, it is all new. 8 year olds also have a "depth" of experience emotionally, not only do they experience the joy of love, of summer nights, and discovering new things, they also skin their knees, get hit by baseballs, find themselves alone or lost or both, get into fights and they cry. A lot.

Now lets consider the experience of a 20 year old. Now they've declared a major and are honing in on their future career. They've experienced a lot, so new experiences, while still common are not an everyday thing like an 8 year old. They've also acquired a taste for comfort. They've learned to avoid those horrible experiences where they are picked last for the team, mocked for being odd, or rejected for their interests by aligning with a more homogeneous group of friends. Their hose, their conduit for time has narrowed. As their brain matures, their "set point" for the processing of time becomes fixed which is why I consider the set point for the notion of "1 year" fixed here at age 20, not at age 8.

Screen Shot 2013-05-23 at 11.08.55 PMFast forward and now consider the average middle aged office worker. Routine rules the day - same wake up time, same commute, same co-workers, same type of problems in the same department. Even when they go on vacation, they go to the same place. The middle aged professional also has the money to eliminate the pains and aches of life. The modern conveniences of air conditioning, heat, Advil, and TV, have created a platinum sweater around him or her. This muffling gauze of modernity necessarily constrains the highs as well as the lows, like wearing earplugs for the sometimes jarring music of life. This narrow existence and comfortable life further constricts the breadth and depth of the temporal conduit, and by middle age, time races by, flowing in an artificially pressurized valve, much like arteriosclerosis.

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The middle aged man or woman feels safe, they are comfortable.. And they are, as the saying goes, "killing time" as it flies by.

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The antidote here is quite simple - in order to expand the conduit of time and hence slow it down you have to increase the breadth and depth of your experiences - live more like an 8 year old, or as Hemingway writes, live life like a bullfighter. Now to some extent many adults sense this - they sense life is passing them by and so they intuitively seek out new opportunities to expand the breadth of their experience. They decide to take classes, learn a new language, pick up an instrument, resume singing lessons, take up a sport - and to some extent it works - these expand the breadth of experience.

BUT, these experiences only expand their lives in one dimensionsand hence their hose of time is flat, there's no depth to those new experiences. Why? For the simple reason that there is no risk in those activities, no fear of failure. An unfortunate truth of life is that without risk of failure, without the possibility or actuality of suffering, then you cannot have depth. So, to conclude this first metaphor, in order to unconstrict the garden hose, you have to take on risk in those new experiences. If you take up piano, sign up for a recital, if you take up singing, perform on stage, if you take up running, enter a race. Also, when you go on vacation, never go to the same place twice.

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So, how to know if you are 'doing it right?" If something you are pursuing doesn't carry the risk of real tears upon failure, if it doesn't carry that kind of emotional commitment, then you aren't "living all the way up" and you will not be able to slow time to that of an 8 year old, or a bullfighter.

But, if you expand your set of experiences, and allow the pendulum of emotions to re-enter your life, take chances, get emotionally vested, then you can widen your hose of life and slow time. That is really living.

I want my graph to expand and accordion out like the graph below. I'm willing to take on the risks and failures and suffering required. Time to enter the bullring...

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Next up:

The Second Law of Temporal Dynamics: The Law of Inversion

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


3. A Simple Measure of Life: Time

Dost thou love life? Then do not squander time, for that is the stuff life is made of.Benjamin Franklin

If time is the stuff life is made of, what is time itself made of? 

As children we were trained to believe that time is composed of a linear set of markers, ticking forward into the future, tocking back into the past. This, however, is a lie, and it matters. Time, as we actually experience it, is anything but linear. Through the distortions of cognition, time speeds by or freezes, is made or filled, wasted or killed.

If we accept that “experiential time” – i.e. time as processed through our brains - is not chronological and linear, then we can begin to imagine that it might be possible to influence or manipulate the experience of time in ways that are beneficial and accretive. If you accept this, then you can accept that it might be possible to experience more life through the lens of time and hence really live longer without adding a single chronological day.

“Are you killing time or making time?”

There exists, in fact, an alternate paradigm of time with a set of rules that we all experience but for some reason continue to ignore in favor of the linear view of chronological time. After more than 10 years of studying and thinking about time, I have uncovered some elegantly simple insights about the nature of what time is actually composed of.  In the coming weeks I will share what I have discovered about the New Physics of Time and its application to how we experience life.  You may end up wondering, as I did, why we ever accepted an alternate notion of time in the first place.

Three Laws of Temporal Dynamics govern experiential time.

First Law: Temporal Contraction Second Law: Temporal Inversion Third Law: Temporal Expansion

These laws can each be documented with: a)  a relatable story that demonstrates how the law plays out in reality, b) a metaphor describing the system dynamics, and c) suggested mechanisms to manipulate time in beneficial, accretive or expansive ways.


The First Law of Temporal Dynamics: The Law of Contraction

All other factors being held constant, the conduit for the flow of time, as processed through the constraints of cognition, will contract, resulting in the subsequent perception of the acceleration of time.

Coming Soon: In post 4. I will explain the first law in detail.


1. The Art of Really Living: For People Who Are Good At "Life"

"Every man dies, not every man really lives"William Wallace in Braveheart

If that quote really resonates with you, then this site is for you. After many many years in the making I am very glad to finally launch this site. In the coming weeks and months I will begin regular posts on the definition and nature of this idea of "really living" and its unique relationship with the way we experience time (experiential time).

My hope is that this site will attract fellow adventurers, risk takers, time travelers, and people from all walks of life who are "good at life" or simply, "really living." My hope is to create an interactive forum to share stories, ideas, and gather feedback. Topics covered will be as broad as suffering and joy, the nature of strengths, and experiential time vs. chronological time and topics as specific as quick snapshots of a day in the life of one of the readers or "how to plan a really living vacation".

SUBCRIBE! Will you join me? Please subscribe, and if after a few posts you like what you read, please forward to your friends. Life is short. In my case you'll note each post has a "T-(00,0000)" countdown at the bottom. This represents the number of days in my life left according to actuarial tables. I don't know about you but I don't want to waste a single one.

Teaser: Have you noticed that time appears to be accelerating? That each year seems to go by faster than the past? What if I there was a way to stop and even reverse that trend and actually slow down time?

Coming Soon: The New Physics of Time - How to really live for 300+ years