22 October 2009

Time Isn't What It Used to Be - Book Review

Excerpt from review of Eva Hoffman's book 'Time', New Scientist, October 2009

'Time is not what it used to be. Once a flowing river whose current we passively monitored, time is now more properly understood as something constructed by the brain and personalised by culture. We have relationships with time; we fight it and manipulate it.

Into this arena steps Eva Hoffman with her poetically scientific and austerely titled Time. Hoffman is on an exploration to become intimate with time, motivated by her sense that our interaction with time has changed.

Our societies have become obsessed with time and timekeeping, both in the workplace and at home. Jet travel manipulates our experience of day-night cycles and seasons, while biomedical science races to increase our lifespan yet further. At the other end of the spectrum, new technologies adapt our minds to the ever-briefer scales of micro and nano.

Hoffman covers a lot of ground, from physics (why time flows in only one direction) to biology (the circadian rhythm and sleep) to neuroscience (how temporality is constructed by the brain). She addresses questions of time and consciousness, including the uniquely human ability to envision large vistas of past or future.

Perceived time is illuminated by disease states such as Alzheimer's disease or Korsakoff's syndrome, in which one's time narrative becomes disorganised, and by fantasies and dreams, in which the unconscious brain does not necessarily commit to a temporal narrative at all.

Hoffman also investigates individual differences in how people treat time (those who leave parties early versus those who have to be shooed out at the end) as well as cultural differences (communities in which haste amounts to a breach of ethics, for instance).

A recurring theme is that the human capacity to manipulate our environment ushers in new complexities to the basic biology of time. For example, while other animals age and die on a strict schedule, humans do everything in their power to control that timing. And the book is full of interesting thoughts: consider the different temporal experience of wild blueberry bushes, which live 13,000 years, and mayflies, which fulfil their earthly purpose in a lifespan of hours...

One gap in the book involves the perception of very short time scales - of less than a second - which neuroscientists refer to as time sensation: did he catch my glance at his name tag? Which event happened first, my footfall or the snapping twig? Sub-second time sensation is a fertile area in modern brain research, one that is unlocking fundamental mysteries about perception...

The book argues convincingly that our relationship with time is changing drastically, portending real consequences for our quality of life. These considerations lead Hoffman to state that our changing relationship with time amounts to a "paradigm shift comparable to the Copernican or Einsteinian revolutions"...

The author describes her childhood in Eastern Europe as slow-tempo, and one suspects that only an immigrant's eyes could so clearly detect the "American nervousness" with time: the way Americans squeeze time and fret about it in their "perpetually renewing newness". But she's not necessarily opposed to the American tempo. She acknowledges that the strict, efficient management of time has its merits - for example, knowing how much one's time is worth and asserting one's "temporal rights".'

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