Time travel has fascinated us for a long… well, time. Even before H.G. Wells wrote about a fanciful device that could carry its operator to and fro across temporal barriers, Edward Page Mitchell, an editor for The Sun in the 1890s, had written about a clock which, through some mystifying process, allowed a group of men to travel to the past. It was the first example such a story to appear in popular fiction of its kind, though undoubtedly, the concept may very well have crossed other’s minds in even earlier times, as evidenced perhaps in such writings as the elaborate analysis of time, perception, and how each relates to God in Book XI of Saint Augustine’s Confessions.
Today, a number of our most acclaimed scientific minds, including Paul Davies, Brian Greene, and Stephen Hawking, have offered theories about how time travel might be possible. However, perhaps in order to better understand the way time affects our notions of reality, it would also help to examine how the passage of time might be altered, even in the absence of elaborate machines built to evade temporality, while conveniently disguised as phone booths.
A recent BBC News article dealt with the story of a man, referred to in anonymized form as “Simon Baker”, who told of having experienced an effect that he likened to the passage of time being slowed down, in conjunction with suffering an aneurism. “By studying what happens during such extreme events,” author David Robson wrote, “researchers are revealing how and why the brain plays these temporal tricks – and in some circumstances, they suggest, all of us can experience time warping.”
To put things another way, perhaps there is a neurological component underlying how people perceive the passage of time. This, in turn, brings to mind other questions: could the way time is perceived, including its “speed”, actually be different from person to person? What if there were ways that the perception of how time passes before us could be changed, and if so, how would this be achieved?
A similar BBC article from 2014 collected reports from readers who claimed to have experienced similar instances where time seemed to slow down around them. “Some researchers suggest that when we are confronted with danger, the rush of stress hormones could accelerate our thought processing, which makes the outside world seem to move slowly in comparison,” the article notes. However, the researchers who feel this way weren’t named specifically.
That isn’t to say it hasn’t been considered, of course, since a number of different branches of study do exist that explore the relationship between perception and the passage of time. Everything from how the brain is chemically predisposed toward perceiving the passage of time more quickly with the onset of age, to whether a neurological “slowing” of time might occur in relation to stimuli such as danger, or more interestingly, the presence of someone we find sexually attractive, has been given consideration. Some have even suggested that humans are befitted with the neurological equivalent of a “biological stopwatch”, which marks a variety of perceptual occurrences in ways we yet to fully understand.
It is intriguing to consider whether the way we perceive time is indeed something that can become variable, based on various stimuli. It also brings us toward the broader philosophical debate over human experience and its relation to temporality, as explored in this fascinating and very lengthy (though rewarding) article, called “The Experience and Perception of Time“, made available online courtesy of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
Could part of the key to unlocking the mysteries of time actually lay in our fundamental perception of it?