The WordPress photo challenge this week is to show time in a single image. This is, of course, impossible. But it got me to thinking about what time is and how we experience it, and how sometimes it zooms and sometimes it crawls, and I wound up with an image after all.
From a scientific point of view, time is a mystery. To Isaac Newton it flowed at a constant rate throughout the universe, counting out the seconds independent of everything else. Albert Einstein upended that view, developing a theory of space and time that are intertwined and influenced by the mass and motion of physical objects. When something is moving very fast relative to something else, its internal time slows down, and in the vicinity of massive objects time is also slowed. This has been demonstrated over and over by experiment, but it doesn’t really answer the basic question: what is time?
Since physics doesn’t have an answer for us, how about my field, psychology? How does the mind deal with time? There is a lot of research exploring various factors that influence our perception of time (Time Warped by Claudia Hammond presents a good review of where the research stood as of a couple of years ago). We have interesting insights, but nothing like a fully comprehensive theory of how our brains process the passage of time. In fact, it’s not clear what that would even mean. When studying time, we sometimes don’t even know how to ask the questions.
What we know for sure is that, in our human experience of the world, time does not flow smoothly or evenly. Time flies when you’re having fun, and time slows down in emergencies. As you get older, it moves slower and slower. We are impatient for our babies to grow and we hate to see them change. To quote Wanda, the new mom playing on the floor with her first child in the delightful comic strip Baby Blues, “How can the months go by so fast when the days go by so slowly?” We want to hold on to each moment and make it last. That’s one reason why we take photos, after all; to make the moments stick.
These were my thoughts when I took this picture. Trees live slowly in general, and this one, dormant now for winter, is living even slower. Sap isn’t flowing, and the metabolism of the cells is barely ticking over. Overhead, the clouds are sliding by on the brisk wind, and they billow and change as we watch. Their time scale is much faster than that of the tree.
Me? I’m somewhere in between. My sap isn’t flowing as fast as it was when I was younger, but I’m not dormant yet!
Change and constancy. That’s what life is about.
Posted in response to the WordPress Photo Challenge: Time