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Ann Reynolds

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The End of Time

Posted: 09/30/10 02:32 PM ET

What will our future be? Everyone wants to know. Depending on who you listen to, one future is new and exciting, the other terminal and scary.

Why is "One Day at a Time" so hard to do? Is it because we just can't bear to live without time?

Just being here Today can be a challenge. If we live in the past, we may spend Today there. And if we live in the future, we probably remember the past, but may not even recognize Today. Time is complicated.

We invented clocks that record our invented time no matter what we think or do. Since we invented all this, it sure seems we could perceive time in any way we choose.

We're also told we don't have the power to alter time in either direction. We're young but never get to be older, or we're older and never get to be younger, but is this true? Are we buying into a certain time based on how others compartmentalize us based on chronology?

What if our brains could change all this?

David Eagleman is a neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine's Laboratory for Perception and Action. His best seller Sum: Tales from the Afterlives is a risky book for a scientist. There's plenty written on the subject, and it's typically credited to "the lunatic fringe" or "people who need help".

Eagleman's book is fiction, but it quickly became a best seller, and doesn't appear to have jeopardized his reputation much. Could it be he's scenario thinking that elusive proof we can exist anywhere in the past, present, or future, describing our location in time?

Circadian rhythms regulate wake and sleep cycles. We're either a morning person or a night owl. Night owls don't like alarm clocks, but they're a necessary evil. Some clocks even have wheels, roll onto the floor when they go off and zoom away, forcing us to get out of bed and chase time down.

We don't hibernate either, unless we have SAD (seasonal affective disorder). When the Sun suddenly changes exposure around October 31st to April 15th, some people can't get out of bed at all. They just want to be a bear or squirrel and hibernate.

Eagleman's research indicates these are all "timing malfunctions" in the brain. A bunch of cells called the suprachiasmatic nucleus regulate our perception of time, and the brain has two versions. Our master control registers The Now, and the rest of the brain cleans up conflicting information on what is past, present, or future.

Eagleman's research is a ground-breaker. It implies we can actually recalibrate our perception of time, and if so, we might even be able to prove in the future we can "time travel" at will.
This sounds like fiction, at least for Today.

Mileva Maric intuited that time is relative based on a person's location in space, and her husband, Albert Einstein, theoretically proved it. Eagleman however, is demonstrating time is relative to how we choose to time our reality, regardless of location. He's devised an experiment testing this hypothesis that doesn't seem very "elegant".

Visualize an amusement park, where in addition to the roller coaster, they drop you in a free-fall guaranteed to make you hurl your lunch into the net below. Eagleman's test subjects must keep their eyes wide open during their free-fall so they can record the amount of time they think it lasts. A chronometer is strapped to their wrist, but subjects reported their free-fall lasted longer than the chronometer recorded.

This artificial assault on survival creates the same relative time perception we have when confronted with other urgent events. If you are the chaser, you know your survival depends on taking down your prey for food. If you are the food, you'd better outrun your chaser. This can't happen fast enough, so time drags itself out, giving you plenty of time for strategy and recalibration.

But upload something repetitively familiar into the brain, like taking out the trash or the alarm clock on wheels, and time speeds up. Repetition is boring. We want to move on to the next novel event a.s.a.p.
Let's say you're bored with your current reality, so your desire to speed up time invents interesting dreams. Chase scenes. Flying. Sex. Homelessness. Any of these can be fun or frightening. Either way, your dream seems to last forever, but instrumentation monitoring rapid eye movement will record your dream duration as lasting just a few seconds.

My favorite example of a timeless dream is the hilarious video of a sleeping dog in a chase. Front legs in a crazed gallop, muffled woofing... we imagine an exhaustive pursuit and the rabbit is winning. The video is only thirty seconds, but tell that to the dog.

So what's happening to time in our current world of one "presumed" crisis after another? Are we subconsciously trying to slow time down, fearful of the future?

We all choose our crises. If we fear losing our home or we're in a bad relationship, time slows down until we can get rid of all that yukky furniture, loser mortgage, or boring spouse.

Finally free, we move to Costa Rica with our new love interest, hang out in lawn chairs and live in a palapa. Then familiarity creeps in bringing boredom with it, and we're prisoners of speedy time again.
Who's to say we don't make time happen? And who's to say we need scientific data to justify to others our position on where and when we want to be?

Actually, I think inventing science to get a little respect is a great idea. What's rather cool about dishing out "hard scientific data" to those who contest our reality is, they've got no comeback. People are suckers for "scientific fact". They'll buy into any of it until it changes again next week.

And so will we. So now that we have data, why not tell ourselves where we want to be and when? And isn't all this relative to what happens in our brains anyway, especially when we're in a free-fall?