The Concept of Time

Time is a powerful force that controls our existence. Every moment in which we are alive and conscious has been given a numerical label. The cycles of human behavior have been etched by the concept of time: when we sleep and wake, when we eat, when we celebrate birthdays and other anniversaries, how we define being late or early. We see time as a continuous, regular, and omnipresent measurement. But what if it is not? What if, time is actually an illusion?

For some reason, it is easier for me to imagine the physical world as an illusion. Since it is only something that the brain creates for us based on it’s best guess of what the electrical impulses in neurotransmitters imply, it is easier to comprehend the real world as possibly being something different, and if you close your eyes, it’s not even there anymore. But what about time? That’s not something you can shake off. Does the brain create the concept of time; or it there some metaphysical, universal clock, present since the beginning of reality, ticking off the time since the start? It is simply the pure intelligence of humans that has allowed us to be aware of how one change occurs in relation to another, which is then mapped onto an accepted reference table known as the clock? If, for example, you clap your hands, and then two seconds later, you shake you head, and time is the only thing that separated these two independent actions, what would happen if time did not exist? Would everything just happen at once? But “at once” is also a measure of time, so what will happen? Also, imagine if everything in the universe froze. Would time still go on? If everything would then unfreeze, how would we know how much time passed? If time exists only in the present moment, how do the series of these intervals add up to our continuous perception of time? Aristotle had said that “time does not exist without change,” so do we create time by “jumps” and combinations of these seemingly infinite changes, or is time really just an arrow that predictably and continuously points forward, and we must dutifully march down it?

I’ve been thinking a lot about how time is perceived as a person ages. When I was younger, one day would feel longer than a day right now would. I assume that this is because I got used to time ticking along, and started to become unaware of it. I also think that a lot of my perception of the world has moved to my subconscious. When I was young, my family would often go on road trips. I really liked to look out the window and notice all the trees, bushes, road signs, and the occasional squirrel or deer. My fascination was especially captivated during the autumn foliage season, when the leaves would turn red, orange, and yellow and there was just so much to look at. Now, I’m used to seeing leaves and trees. I now know, with a numbing certainty, that by the time September rolls around, the leaves will definitely change color, so I am not aware of it when they finally do. I notice change much less, and time has become only a reminder of the progression of my life.

My younger brother, on the other hand, is consumed by the concept of time. He is both a competitive swimmer and rubik’s cube solver, and he is constantly chasing the progression of time, training for hours to shed a second, sometimes even a few milliseconds, from his breaststroke or solve time. That second could determine his victory, or grant him esteem and wisdom within his circles of friends on Facebook. I checked his Instagram page and saw that hundreds of adoring “fans” follow him because he solved a rubik’s cube a few seconds faster than someone else. I am very proud of his accomplishments, but I wonder what it must feel like to battle something so wholly beyond his control and how precise all his actions must be in order to please this invisible judge. I’d assume that time means something very different for him than it does for me. Having the ability to solve a rubik’s cube in six seconds gives an entire minute much more potential to him than it does to me. If he could solve ten rubik’s cubes and swim the length of the pool twice while I can probably only read two pages of a book, his minutes are much more powerful than mine. If every little move matters so much to him, his perception of time has more notable intervals and does not all blend into one big blur like it does for me. Ultimately, our perceptions of time are very different, which leads me to believe that each individual assigns their own meaning to the intervals between the changes happening in their lives, and time is an illusion that we all create for ourselves.


Originally published on the Literati Mafia

27 thoughts on “The Concept of Time

  1. I’ve recently started to ignore the concept of time when I started my road trip and it’s really nice and it’s probably because I’m getting older. Haha I’ve also solved a Rubix cube a few times with the help of Youtube, but that took some time and frustration. Then I started to try learning the pinky method to go faster just for shits and giggles. Haha I’m sure your brother could solve the entire thing it faster than I could finish one side.

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    1. I try to ignore it too. Thinking about it just makes me go crazy. I just wrote this post as a way to get all my thoughts down and to “settle the dust” on this matter and hopefully move on. I’ve tried solving a rubicks cube before, but it’s just too complicated for me. When I watch my brother solve it, and I’m just blown away by how quickly he does it.

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  2. Good read. The way of time flowing slower, when we are young, what if that is also just our brain recreating a memory? We have no real way of making sure, yet many people describe this phenomenon. Maybe time seems to move slower because the amount of data our brains have to process when they are younger are much higher and later selective perception and adaption makes us less susceptible to external stimuli?

    If a child asks you “When is lunch?” and you answer “Soon.” they don’t really seem to have a concept of what “soon” means, so they might ask again every minute. So maybe concepts like soon are something that is built by social conventions. We agree that soon is an amount of time equaling several minutes. Depending on our culture this might be 5 minutes, 15 or maybe 30 minutes.

    What I find absurd is the capitalist idea of exchanging (or loaning) time for money. If there was no capitalism we might have a completely different understanding of time. Right now we need to take into account all those agreed variables like schedules etc. but they are somehow unnatural. My grandmother always tended to a strict schedule: breakfast at 8, lunch at 12, dinner at 6. She was so used to this routine and it probably gave her some sense of security. To me schedules often feel like a corset and when I can choose when to eat/sleep my body seems to follow its needs rather than social conventions.

    A great book about time is “Thief of Time” by Terry Pratchett, by the way. Although it is a novel it has an interesting approach to time and how we perceive it.

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    1. I think you may be right. When we are young, our brain probably has to process more visual information and has to go through a lot of new experiences, which is probably why everything feels longer. For example, the first day I saw the ocean felt like the longest day in my life because there was just so many new things to see, but when I visited the ocean more and more, the day didn’t feel much longer.

      I think “soon” or “later” or “in a while” are social conventions that we get used to over time. It also depends on the context. For example, I may ask someone when they are moving into a new house, soon could mean a few weeks or months. But for lunch, soon can mean five minutes. I think we only understand these nuances as we grow up.

      I feel like schedules constrict the potential of what I can do. It turns my life into a routine that is hard to break. I think, though, society does demand that we all live on a schedule. Things run smoother that way.

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    1. I guess that makes sense since Buddhists believe that human life is just a cycle of reincarnation, so maybe time just starts over again when one is reborn. Well, glad I’m not the only one that believes so.

      And thank you, glad you liked it!

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  3. Some say that time is another dimension, right? In light of that, it makes sense to me that reality wouldn’t really exist without it. But it is far more flexible than most people want to think.

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    1. I think time is considered as the fourth dimension. But it still is an illusion, I think, because each person gives time a subjective value. Like I said, one minute for me may be shorter or longer than for someone else.

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  4. I was discussing this the other day with someone. Our conclusions: Time exists purely in the material plane. It began with the Big bang, because that’s as far back as we can possibly go back to. It’s all about movement of matter and frames of reference. Whether it’s cyclical or linear is irrelevant to the overall concept.

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    1. So does that mean that nothing existed before the Big Bang? That’s so difficult to wrap my head around, but I guess it is true. Do you think the concept of time actually exists in space where there is nothing to mark the procession of time, no (or very limited) frames of reference?

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  5. An old friend from yrs ago who has schizophrenia – (oh yeah, btw, I could never figure him out, cos he seemed mostly sane just a bit nervy) anyhow, one day while chatting away, it emerged from conversation that he believed the government, (or someone) had a machine which would cause time to sped up or slow down! Wow! I just thought that was so crazy!!

    As for me, my concept of time is pretty vague, it goes faster when your enjoying things I find, which is frustrating, but what can you do?

    As for those scientists – well their all nuts! 😀

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    1. But do you think we would notice time speeding up or slowing down if the government did this?

      Like you said, time seems to speed up when you are doing something you enjoy, but doesn’t it feel as if you are doing everything quickly during that time too? That happens to me a lot when I’m drawing, my thoughts run quickly and so does my pencil, but I guess I’m just so preoccupied with what I’m doing that I forget to make sense of time?

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      1. I used to really notice that time passed differently whilst painting – I expect it still does, but these days I’m less stressed as a rule than I was yrs ago, so its not so noticeable as it used to be. Perhaps when stressed time passes quicker as the mind is working faster? I notice when driving, fast boring roads seem to go on longer, even tho the journey is faster, while more interesting routes which are slower are interesting enough to make the time pass quicker.

        I sometimes wonder what its like to be an insect, or a mouse, whose life is so short, but does the time pass much slower? I shall have to ask one 😀

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      2. Oh yes, I should add, time in general passes quicker for me as I get older, I’m not immune from it overall, xmas seems to come quicker every time – tho I feel this summer has been good to me and enjoyable, less wasted time indoors due to rain anyhow 🙂

        I think my friends mind was probably all over the place – having to deal with the stress of his illness, and half the time not even realising whats real and what isn’t! I guess believing the government was to blame was at least manageable for him!

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  6. Hi Kat! You sure do have a knack for asking profound questions! Good post!

    One theory I’ve heard about why time seems to speed up as we grow older is that it has to do with our perspective. At age six, we have only six years worth of experiences when we (consciously or subconsciously) sum up “all of time”. But at age 60, we have sixty years worth. So any new experience at six is proportionally a bigger chunk of “all of time” than it would be at 60. Not sure I’ve explained that very well.

    Another thing I’ve heard is that it takes the average American child until about the age of 11 to fully grasp everything that is meant in our culture about time.

    You might already know this, but just to be sure: Einstein, in a letter to the widow of a recently deceased colleague remarked, “time is an illusion, albeit a persistent one.” Apparently, he was trying to reassure her that her husband still existed in some very real sense — that is, that the past still exists,

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    1. Thank you!
      And I know exactly what you mean. For example, three years ago for a six year old happened half their life ago, but for a sixty year old, 3 years ago happened 1/20 of their life ago. Thats how I think of it. During those three years, the same amount of “stuff” will happen to both the 6 and 60 year old, but for the 6 year old, since that “stuff” spanned over half their life, it would feel like it took longer for it to happen.

      I see Einstein’s quote a little differently. Since Einstein created the theory of relativity, he knew that time was an illusion, but just because it is an illusion, it does not mean you can shake it off or turn time back. Time will still always go on, and since it always goes on, unfortunate events will inevitably occur.

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      1. I’m actually fixing to write a post on McTaggart’s notions about time. Very different from anything I’ve heard of before. But I don’t know when I’ll publish it. McTaggart was a British philosopher circa 1900 who came up with a very strange notion of time.

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  7. Totally disagree with you on here. Time is a reality, just like you and I. The very thought about time already consumed a fixed amount of time allocated to you. Difference between you and your brother is that he is making something out of it as compared to you only rhinking about doing something worthwhile i.e philophosizing (i will check the spellings later). And don’t mistake him not thinking like you. He might be smarter, wiser and far more intelligent to think even between those miliseconds while he finishes the cube. It could very well be a depression that causes such a negative outlook about one of the most important asepects of life i.e time. And I did not have my breakfast yet 🙂

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    1. That’s interesting. I don’t mean to get too philosophical here, but really what is reality? I don’t think that there even is an objective concept of reality. I think we all have our own reality, just have we have our own concept of time. And it’s not that I just spend all my time philosophizing, although I wish I could. 🙂 Obviously, when I think about something interesting time does go quickly, but the same happens in my normal day to day events of working, eating, exercising, etc. Time is only important to me in that it marks the start and finish of what I do, but it does not matter in between, and because I am not aware of it then, it slips away unnoticed. Maybe there is an objective clock ticking off the minutes, but just like humans are more than the bodies they inhabit, and just like reality is subjective, I think that our own personal notion of time matters a lot more than the standard convention for it. And maybe I am depressed, but I just think that my approach is a more individualistic and humanistic way of thinking, but your approach makes a lot of sense too.

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  8. Can we stop time? The universe is infinite so is time… and our consciousness moves in a complete cycle we can call birth and death…. to infinite rebirths.
    Life can’t be an illusion and rebirths could be real as matter changes form.
    It is the infinite limitless universe as energy that beats all conclusions.
    So if time stops will the real world vanish… I doubt it …..so by simple logic… nothing from nothing will be nothing.

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    1. Personally, I do not believe in rebirth. I do think that humans have a soul, in other worlds, that our consciousness makes us greater than the sum of our parts, but be are still humans, so when we die, we die. I also think that some aspects of reality are subjective, or an “illusion” Time is necessary for us to exist. Obviously, it cannot stop, that was just a thought experiment.

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      1. Very true time cannot be stopped….and soul is also a form of energy…. Einstein’s … matter can neither be created of destroyed … would hold… once the complex energy gets accumulated as birth … it gathers ….consciousness ….when dead …it changes back to its energy form … we term as GOD….. assuming it does not get rebirth….called NIRVANA!
        we like it or not we all get NIRVANA.
        … as nothing but energy and time stay as infinite nothing.

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  9. Very well reasoned. From what I’ve studied, time certainly seems to be something real – it’s difficult to escape that conclusion. The difficult thing to answer is whether time is actually the way we perceive it to be. Does time flow, or is the flow of time an illusion of an evolved brain? Perhaps time-ordering events is something that aids survival and hence our brains have evolved to present us with that illusion.

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    1. Thank you!
      I don’t know if we can ever know whether time is an illusion or not. It’s just too elusive to really understand. And what about relativity? But if time is really real, is it real in the sense that it exists for each person, or is there some sort of universal clock, measuring time since the start of existence?
      I wouldn’t be surprised if time is actually an evolutionary development. So much of the visual word is greatly simplified in order for us the understand it better, could it be the same way for time?

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