Jan W. Vasbinder: The Dimension of Time

Gordon River, Tasmania. Photo:
Kristina D.C. Hoeppner / Flickr

Time seems to have an intangible dimension. We cannot measure it directly, like the length of an object. Instead, we need an artificial device, a clock, to measure it. But what are we actually measuring, and why is this measurement so incommensurate with our sense or experience of time?

A clock creates intervals to which we can relate, but our brain cannot measure it. To two different people, an interval of an hour on a clock (that is 3600 ticks on a “60 beats per minute” metronome) may feel like a day or only a few seconds, depending on the context in which they experience the time. That day or those seconds—how do we determine their lengths in our experience of time?

The clock-time may tell us that the day or the seconds that we experience are exactly the same number of counted seconds. Our experience and sense tell us otherwise. The musician may use “60 beats per minute” to make sure that he got the tempo right, after which he will stretch or shorten the duration of some notes, or combinations of notes, to give meaning to the music.

Another example of time stretching itself out is what tennis-player Jimmy Connors described as transcendent occasions. Here, I quote from A Geography of Time by Robert Levine (1997):

“Tennis great Jimmy Connors has described transcendent occasions when his game rose to a level where he felt he’s entered a ‘zone’. At these moments, he recalls, the ball would appear huge as it came over the net and seemed suspended in slow motion. In this rarified air, Connors felt he had all the time in the world to decide, when, and where to hit the ball. In truth, of course, his seeming eternity lasted only a fraction of a second.”

So, what does time do to us, or what do we do to time?

A few weeks ago, my wife and I were on vacation in Tasmania. Life seemed to go a lot slower there than in Singapore. Amongst others, we took a boat trip down the Gordon River on the West coast of Tasmania. Along that river, life is even more slow: trees take hundreds of years to mature. The oldest trees around (the Huon pines) are 3,000 years old or more. At that pace and age, evolution takes a long time.

The vegetation in the rainforest around Gordon River is said to about the same as the vegetation that was there when Australia broke apart from Antarctica some 150 million years ago. There could still be some dinosaurs, if they had not gone extinct 60 million years ago by events that went faster than their speed of life. But the trees from which they ate still exist and now form an impenetrable rainforest that covers most of the West coast of Tasmania.

Why do I write this? I think an important question for me is how to conciliate clock time with perceived time. What determines the time frame that drives perception?

There seems to be plenty of evidence that there is something like clock-time. With clock-time as a ticking basis, an innumerable number of processes take place in all corners of the universe and in all products of evolution.

Some of these processes take millions of years to create a measurable impact. Others, like chemical reactions, metabolic processes, or brainwaves take milliseconds or less. Yet, for each of those processes, the clock ticks at the same speed. At least that is what I assume, not taking into account Einsteinian physics. We, and the environment we live in, are shaped by the interactions of all these processes.

Does the clock-time change in all these interactions? I find that hard to imagine. What I can imagine is that some processes are stimulated, and others are repressed by other processes with which they interact.

Could it be that such stimulation or repression plays a role in our perception of time and duration? If so, what happens when we find ourselves in a forest, like my wife and I did, that has evolved very slowly in 150 million years, and that has 3,000-year-old trees in it?

Can one imagine a measurement device in our brain that detects duration, and operates independently of the interactions that shape(d) us and our environment?

If there is such a device and if it is not independent, what is the meaning of the distinction between “now” and “before”? If, on the other hand, it is dependent, then maybe our perception of duration is just an indication that some processes are being depressed or stimulated.

Although I can imagine that happening in a prehistoric forest, I have no idea how.


Jan Wouter Vasbinder is the Director of Para Limes. 

Para Limes is organising a conference, “The Complexities of Time”, that will run from 19 to 21 March 2018. All are welcomed and registration is required. For more information, visit our website