What is time? Marc Wittmann on the psychology of how we perceive time


It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it.  Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested.

– Seneca, On the Shortness of Life.

There is perhaps no resource as precious as time. None of us know how much we have and almost all of us are likely to have less than we think. The way we spend our time says a lot about us and ultimately shapes the kind of life we have.

Marc Wittmann’s Felt Time (public library) explores a number of topics on how humans experience time. Why do some people struggle with delayed gratification? Why does time seem to speed up at some times and drag on at other times? Why is it so hard to focus on the present? Why do children have a difficult time waiting? He explores these and other questions using psychological and scientific research. The book itself is small but mighty, clocking in at 185 pages and seven dense but accessible chapters. The book is also a translation but I could not tell.

My desire to read more science books in 2017 and my own personal and professional interests motivated me to pick up this book. Like many others, I have had the experience of losing loved ones “before their time” and that experience profoundly changed the way I perceived time. In my work life, I am interested in how and why some people invest their present time and resources into creating a better future for their communities, even though they may not experience or even see the rewards during their lifetime.

I learned that Political Myopia is the term for what happens when a culture is short-sighted and caters to its citizens’ present wants and desires by creating debts that its future generations will be forced to pay.  It’s a depressingly relevant idea but one that I’m glad to have a name for.

When children learn to delay gratification for a future reward, it is dependent on them actually receiving the positive benefit of a reward. The author uses the example of children who are told that they can either eat one marshmallow now or wait for a duration of time and then they will get to eat two marshmallows. But what if the child waits and the two marshmallows never come? If it were me, I’d learn quickly to eat the first marshmallow while I had the chance.

How then are we to motivate people, especially adults, to sacrifice today for future rewards they will never experience? Wittman writes: “Therefore, we need to expend greater effort and invest more imagination for our ideas about the future, which are abstract and hypothetical, to compete with the concrete, emotional demands of the present.”

Here are some other interesting things I learned from this book:

  • Participating in and even just watching sports can help us perceive time in healthy ways. One reason why we love sports is because they allow us to get lost in moments of focused intensity, whether watching or playing. Additionally, successful athletes must let go of immediate past failures (e.g. missing that last free throw) in order to focus on the present.
  • “The greater the store of lived experience – that is, the more emotional coloration and variety one’s life has – the longer one’s lifetime seems, subjectively.” One of the keys to living a full life is to seek out new experiences, especially things that you will do for the first time. New experiences make time seem to slow down which is why one week on vacation experiencing something different each day is later remembered to have felt much longer than a typical week at home.
  • Time management is really emotions management. It’s more about making wise use of yourself and your feelings.
  • Time expands (seems to take up more time than it actually does) in specific circumstances: extreme danger, extreme happiness, and meditation.
  • We don’t actually perceive time. If we were put in isolation chambers we would not know how much time was passing.  What we experience when we seem to perceive time is really change and movement.
  • Different cultures experience time differently (industrialized vs. non-technologically advanced, rural vs. urban, temperate climate vs. tropical). Cultures that focus more on the future are also cultures that generate more wealth.
  • “Boredom involves becoming directly aware of the fact that one is trapped in time”

I thoroughly enjoyed this read and there are many ways in which it has already enriched my life. Frankly, I didn’t realize how much could be said about time.  It’s not the type of book I usually read and I’ve resolved to read more like it.

I’d recommend it for anyone who wants to think more about time and how to make the most of it, anyone interested in meditation and mindfulness, and anyone with a strong nerd streak.


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