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The Fascinating Science Behind Our Perception of Time

The start of a new year is a time to reflect on the past and think about what we want to accomplish in the future. It's a time to let go of any regrets or disappointments from the previous year and move forward with a positive attitude. But in the end it is all about our understanding of time itself.


The concept of time has been a fundamental aspect of human existence for as long as we have been able to measure and record it. From the earliest civilizations to the present day, we have been obsessed with keeping track of time and using it to organize our lives. But where did this concept come from, and how have we come to understand it? The earliest humans likely had a very different understanding of time than we do today. They probably had a more cyclical view of time, with the passing of the seasons and the movements of the sun and moon marking the passage of time. It wasn't until the invention of the first clocks, which allowed us to measure time more precisely, that we were able to break free from this cyclical view of time and understand it in a more linear fashion.


It's not accurate to say that anyone "invented" time, as time is a fundamental aspect of the universe and exists independently of human measurement or perception. However, the concept of time and our understanding of it have evolved and developed over the course of human history. One of the earliest known methods for keeping track of time was the sundial, which was used by the ancient Egyptians as early as 3500 BC. The sundial worked by using the position of the sun in the sky to cast shadows on a flat surface, with the shadows moving in a predictable pattern as the sun moved across the sky. This allowed the Egyptians to divide the day into smaller units of time, such as hours and minutes, which they used to organize their daily lives. Over time, the concept of time and our understanding of it have evolved and grown more complex. The development of mechanical clocks in the 14th century allowed for even more precise measurement of time, and the invention of the pendulum clock in the 17th century made it possible to create highly accurate timepieces. With the advent of electronic clocks in the 20th century, timekeeping became even more precise, and today we have a wide range of technologies that allow us to measure and record time with incredible accuracy.


It's difficult to imagine what the world would look like without the concept of time, as it is such a fundamental aspect of our lives and the way we understand the world around us. It is a fundamental aspect of the universe and exists independently of human measurement or perception, so even if we didn't have a way to measure or understand it, it would still be present. Without the concept of time, it's likely that our understanding of the world and our place in it would be very different. We rely on the passage of time to understand the cause and effect relationships between events, and to predict what will happen in the future. Without a way to measure or understand time, it would be much harder to make sense of the world around us. We use time to organize our daily lives and to plan for the future, and many of the systems and structures that we rely on, such as work- and school schedules, are based on the concept of time.


The concept of time has both pros and cons, depending on how it is used and understood. However it can also create a sense of pressure or stress, as we often feel the need to use our time efficiently and accomplish as much as possible. Time can create a sense of impermanence and transience, as everything is subject to the passage of time and will eventually come to an end which eventually leads to a focus on the past or the future, rather than the present moment, which can make it harder to appreciate and enjoy the present.


It's a common perception that time seems to fly by faster as we get older, and there are a few different explanations for this phenomenon. For one our brain's perception of time changes as we age. As we get older, our brain's processing speed slows down, which can make time seem to pass more quickly. Additionally, the hippocampus, a part of the brain that is involved in memory and perception of time, tends to shrink with age, which can also affect our perception of time. When we are young, every year represents a significant proportion of our total life experience, so it can feel like a longer period of time. As we get older, each year represents a smaller portion of our total life experience, which can make it feel like time is flying by.


Returning to the initial thought about this time of the year with 2023 just around the corner our perception of time becomes significantly more complicated if you also take time-zones into account. On January 30th at 10am GMT it will be 2023 in Samoa. Over 24hrs it will sequentially become 2023 across 24 time zones. "Each zone a construct, as is the arbitrary notion that one year ends and another starts at a specific moment", Ted Hunt wrote in a scientific essay in 2018.

"Why was the time traveler always so calm? Because he knew that everything was relative!"

"Let's get rid of time zones" you say? There have been various proposals throughout history to adjust or eliminate time zones, but none of these have been successful in completely eliminating the concept of time zones. Time zones are used to divide the Earth's surface into 24 roughly equal areas, with each area using a standard time that is based on the position of the sun in the sky so creating a unified time zone unfortunately is not an option. Additionally, the Earth's rotation is not uniform, and time zones are used to account for this irregularity, so eliminating time zones would require finding a different way to account for this variability.


The average human lifespan is absurdly, insultingly brief. Assuming you live to be eighty, you have just over four thousand weeks. Maybe I should stop worrying about time and start living in the present. Oh and if you are still looking for a topic-related great read I would like to recommend "Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals" by Oliver Burkeman.


Have a wonderful start into a new year - one time zone at a time.


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