Thinking About Time

The changes in the perception of time that happens when we're using technology.

To illustrate this phenomenon, imagine two people. The first one is sitting on a couch with a smartphone, practically immovable, accessing social media. The second person is also in the same room, ready to leave for a walk in the park. Additionally, imagine that both activities will take the same amount of time from start to end for this hypothetical situation. What perception of time would each person have at the end?

What I found intriguing about this experiment is that when it ends, each participant will have opposing points of view on how much time elapsed from start to end. For the smartphone user, the perception will be that time went by really fast. But for the one that left the room for a walk, time will seem to have faded away more slowly. And when the person gets back to the room, seeing the user on the couch immediately triggers a sensation that time remained frozen for the smartphone user.

Even though many of us probably have gone through this more than once, few of us really care thinking about why this happens.

To understand what's going on, we need to first think about what time is.

The ancient Greeks presented us with a helpful concept of time, creating two words to represent different concepts. The chronological and sequential time is called Chronos. This is the conceptual time used in physics, or when you book an appointment for 2:00 pm for a haircut session at your local barbershop, for example. The other concept of time is Kairos, and it represents the appropriate opportunity to take action. For instance, if an archer's goal is to hit a target with an arrow, the right time to fire the arrow is Kairos time. It is interesting to notice the discrepancy between the two Greek definitions of time. Chronos is a concept focus on quantity, and contrarily Kairos is focused on quality - choosing just the right moment to act.

Clock displaying its internal mechanisms.
What are the mechanisms that trigger our perception of time?

Mindfulness and The Perception Of Time

The less present and connected to our self we are, the higher our tendency to perceive a period of time as it is rapidly passing. This happens because our Chronos concept of time is connected to the idea of movement. Sometimes our mind gets really disturbed, and we lose some of our ability to perceive movement around us. We start thinking that nothing is changing, as there is no movement at all. While that may look true, especially when we're caught on a daily routine (for example, commuting to and from work), everything is in constant change, and time (Chronos) never stops. To fix our perception, we need to stop and perceive our internal movement through contemplation of our self. Surprisingly, by doing this practice, we can start seeing change happening around again, slowing Chronos' perception.

Hence, Kairos can be used to adjust our perception of Chronos. We need to be present and enjoy the moment. This is the beauty of the ancient Greek concept of time. Now, let's go back to the hypothetical situation presented at the beginning of our discussion.

The smartphone user lounging on the couch loses track of Chronos because of an overwhelming flow of information. Disturbed by erratic input received by both visual and audio senses, the person's mind enters a deeper level of disturbance. This state of mind can be compared to agitated waters preventing you from seeing the bottom of a lake where your self lies. Everything seems to be moving faster than it really is, a misleading conclusion brought by a transitorily undermined ability to perceive movement. This is the most exciting aspect of the phenomena because it displays an interesting paradox. The user's incapacity of perceiving movement leads to an exaggerated notion of speed (movement) and a distorted sense of Chronos time.

Simultaneously, going for a walk in the park requires someone to be minimally focused (spatial orientation, coordinated body movement, self-awareness), encouraging a more peaceful state of mind. Natural landscapes provide a perfect balance of colors and flow, offering adequate conditions for contemplation. It's an ideal time (Kairos) to connect to yourself and create a lucid perception of movement around us. Conversely, when going back to the room, seeing the person in the same place (couch) and still doing the same thing (staring at the device) triggers a perception of immobility. So, from the walker's perspective and the smartphone user, everything seems to be moving. The difference lies in the perceived speed, more slowly for the walker than the person on the couch.

Of course, in both situations, there is no difference in how time (Chronos) flows. Our minds play the architecture of time with us, crafting perceptions with our senses as ingredients to fool us.