Each semester of college seems to fly by in the blink of an eye – excuse the cliché and the rhyme. How we perceive time is both an individualistic experience and a complex science.
Sabrina Cheikhali is a senior studying business law and marketing. She also works 25 hours a week at the Apple Store, is the co-executive director for TEDxUMiami, managing editor of the Ibis Yearbook, graphic design chair of Category 5 and is part of the ‘Canes Advisory Council.
Nicole Arguelles is a junior studying marketing and psychology. She works 10 hours a week at different occupations, which include an internship and tutoring, as well as being a business analyst for Orange Umbrella, a member of the Hyperion Council and an active sister of Alpha Delta Pi sorority.
Cheikhali and Arguelles are among the busiest students here at the University of Miami. Combined, the two have 10 major time commitments on top of being full-time students. To them, planning is based on the nature of the event – urgency over importance. It can all be done, but it’s truly a matter of time.
“I perceive time as something that is limited but renewed each day,” Cheikhali said. “If I slack off an entire day, there’s always tomorrow — and I mean that in a way that isn’t procrastinating, but rather that it’s literally a refresh of 24 hours and how I decide to use them is up to me.”
Time is usually thought of as simply a glance at the clock. It organizes our lives by providing a method to divide up our days, representing the distance as we age. We can’t stop it, we can’t go back, it only moves in one direction – forward. But what is it?
The question has puzzled many. Physics still only has an idea of what time is. A quick Google search and you’ll find yourself in the depths of Quantum Theory, a field of science so far from our reach that it enters a world a lot of us can’t even comprehend.
A femtosecond is the smallest measurement of time at which an atom vibrates. None of the technology we have today can measure beyond this point. This subatomic realm is a place described by mathematics and proven to be true only through rigorous testing that still continues to this day. Although theories exist of time being made up of something at this subatomic level, – a hypothetical chronon unit has been proposed for a discrete quantum of time – it still hasn’t been proven, leaving it an area of physics that remains incomplete.
“[At a time] quicker than atoms can react, suddenly the world becomes very strange,” said Dr. Neil Johnson, a UM physics professor who looks at the physics of collective behavior and emergent properties in real-world systems that are “complex.” “The idea of causality – what things can cause other things and what events can cause other events: I’m interested in that, not at the scale of femtoseconds, but at the scale of everyday things.”
The order of events are how things make sense to us not just at a practical level, but to the brain as well. Perception is a sequence of steps that begins with stimuli in the environment and ends with our interpretation of those stimuli. It begins with selection, as the brain chooses what to focus on depending on the individual. Once the stimuli is selected, it sets off a series of reactions in our brain which are organized to translate sensory details into a mental representation. Finally, the brain interprets the information in a way that makes sense using our existing information about the world. All of this happens unconsciously thousands of times a day.
In the same way that we discuss the work-life balance and the perfect sequence in which to prioritize our day-to-day, it is the chemical balance and perfect sequence of our brain that makes all of this possible.
“Every Sunday I look at my agenda and try to plan for every two days working around my classes in chunks of time,” Arguelles said. “Time is dedicated to events that have the closest upcoming deadline. To stay balanced, if I want to go out, I’ll make sure everything is done beforehand.”
All of Arguelles’ and Cheikhali’s commitments, mixed with school and having a social life, mimic a complex system, and their approach to staying in control mirrors that of the brain. There’s process and planning. Selecting what they need to do, organizing these events accordingly and interpreting their worth to measure the effort required of them.
But, of course, things don’t always go according to plan. When this occurs, they adapt. “If something goes off plan, I’ll try to work on things smarter and not harder,” Arguelles said. “When I have too much stress, I don’t perform at my best. If things get too crazy, I take a step back and watch an episode of “New Girl,” which is 20 minutes, making it the perfect time for a break.”
Similarly, the brain will fill in when it has to, accounting for lost time. Part of Johnson’s work is his theory of relation between the decentralized financial markets and the complex system of sequences in the brain.
“[Observing the markets], you get a phenomena related to the kind of the disorders you see in a brain where you get cascading of delays set up,” Johnson said. “If I’m a machine, if I’m part of this whole network, and there are moments that you get correlated delays, then my perception of the world is that something huge is happening — even though something isn’t.”
Through his research, Johnson has been able to show that if you arrange for the news to arrive to the system in a certain way, then it creates a completely different perception of the world. “This has nothing to do with fake or real news,” he said. “It’s about when the news arrives.”
Students like Cheikhali and Arguelles perceive their time as a resource, a commodity that must be spent efficiently if they wish to obtain their respective goals. Having busy schedules, and jumping from event to event in a predetermined order, allows them to perceive a reality that is one of hard work; and their positive reaction to that provides the feedback to the network that keeps them motivated to move forward. However, because they are not machines, they must take a step back and rest every once in a while.
What you spend your time doing affects the brain. As it adapts and reacts to certain stimuli, your reality is ultimately a predictive pattern that is fed through the feedback of your network, or rather your surroundings.
Johnson uses the example of watching water as it falls while flashing a strobe light: “If you strobe it in a certain way, it changes the sense of reality. Because you know from gravity that it should be falling, but it seems to be rising … you can imagine that if there’s a stream of events, but if I’m picking up those events in the wrong order, I get a different reality of the world.”
While physics views time as a smooth constant in one direction, our perception of it is very much guided by the processes of the brain. As a minute spent waiting in line could feel like an hour, an hour spent with friends could feel like a minute. Reality is perception, and everything is just a matter of time.
words_jorge chabo. photo_patrick ruvo.