Wednesday, 21 March 2012


The Cuillin of Skye from near Applecross

After a series of weekends that have been spent close to home it was a delight to spend a cracking weekend at Applecross, amid great seascapes bordered by the pyramids of Skye and the mesas of Raasay.  It was a weekend that blended novelty and familiarity, time stretched out and the weekend felt at least twice as long as it would have done had we stayed at home.  

Crags and coires tinted by afternoon blue

This is, I think, a general effect - the less novelty we experience, the faster time seems to pass. Two observations from studies of people who have lived on their own in caves with no clock support this idea. Firstly, when they attempt to count 120 seconds it takes 5 minutes; they experience five minutes as if they were two. In other words, three minutes of time had literally trickled through their fingers, unnoticed. It sounds peculiar to use the phrase 'three minutes of time' rather than the shorter 'three minutes' or 'the time', yet it is a correct use of language. Time is a quantity that is measured in the unit of minutes, so it is as appropriate to speak of 'three minutes of time' as of 'two pounds of potatoes' or 'ten pints of beer'. It is worth labouring this point, for these  three minutes - that they could have experienced and crafted memories with - were gone forever.

Applecross sands

In a similar vein, the monotony of subterranean, clockless conditions often cause people to adopt a 48 hour day, with 36 hours of wakefulness followed by 12 hours of sleep. A consequence is that they do not experience the true value of the passing time, They squander two days of their  finite biological life in return for a mere day of subjective experience. In one example a man spent two months underground. When his colleagues came to retrieve him he couldn't believe that his time was up, having only experienced one month made up of 48 hour days. The logical extension is that, were one to spend one's entire life in a cave with no clock, it would only seem half as long as one spent overground.  Imagine the sense of injustice that would be felt by someone who had entered a cave at the age of twenty when the reaper came calling fifty years later. He would only believe himself to be 45 years old but in fact he would have used up his three score and ten. 

Torridon Rainbow

I can't help but feel that this is a cautionary metaphor for life, for career and family life may easily become a cave from which one might emerge blinking, disbelieving, wondering where all that time had gone. Everyone over the age of thirty must have noticed that the passage of time seems to accelerate with every passing year. My Granny, who is Very Old, has been commenting on this phenomenenon for as long as I can remember and assures me that the acceleration shows no sign of easing off in her ninety-first year. In an uncharacteristically mathematical insight, she rationalises this effect as occurring because each successive year makes up an increasing small proportion of one's total life length. The discussion above suggests an alternative explanation, that it is a dearth of novelty rather than a mathematical inevitability that can lead time to trickle away unnoticed, two days at a time, as if we were underground without a watch.

You can read an interview with the isolation experiment pioneer Michel Siffre, from which these observations were drawn, in Cabinet magazine.


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