A unique signature of time

In the same way as Plato’s prisoners or Hawkins’ goldfish, are each of us seeing shadows of time, or a distorted view of it? How is it that each of us judge the duration of a second differently, just as each of us reproduce a uniquely shaped “0” when we hand write?

My teachers at school were always harping on about my poor level of handwriting as it clearly fell outside the margins of what was considered to be acceptable (to them).

It’s a fair point – we all try to write a “0”, for example, but each of us draws it differently – our handwriting is unique, despite each of us trying to replicate an identical shape. And if we are ‘too unique’, we call it “bad handwriting”.

Sure, there are some general patterns (bubbly, scrawly, etc.) but the point is that we all have our own personally unique interpretation of a common number or letter. Perhaps the same can be said too of art – that each of us would draw or paint a different picture even if we are given an identical object to reproduce.

Is it the same with personal time?

Not that we judge time differently. If a group of friends decide to meet outside a bar at 8 pm, it’s likely that there’ll be a spread of times of arrival, probably centered on 8 pm but perhaps with a spread of some +/- 10 minutes.

But whose version of the time is correct?

In Plato’s Allegory of the Cave he postulates the idea of prisoners who are only able to see projections of shadows on a wall in front of them – they have no idea of the ‘real’ objects making the shadows, the light behind them, or the source of any sounds that the puppeteers may make and which echo off the cave walls. For them, the echoes and the shadows are the real world.

Image courtesy: http://theglobalelite.org/
Plato’s Cave. Image courtesy: http://theglobalelite.org/

Stephen Hawkins reproduced this idea with a fish who looks out of a goldfish bowl and sees a distorted view of things outside the bowl as the light travels through the glass. On a similar footing, that distorted view is the real world as it really is…for the fish.

In the same way as the prisoners and the goldfish, are each of us seeing shadows of time, or a distorted view of it? How is it that each of us judge the duration of a second differently, just as each of us reproduce a uniquely shaped “0” when we handwrite? Surely a 0 is a 0? There’s even a mathematical formula for a circle! Surely time is time?

Perhaps we’ll never know. Plato’s prisoners, once taken to the surface and shown how things really stand, were unable to accept the truth. And we all know that a fish out of water can’t survive. Could we?

A sundial never lies.
A sundial never lies.

In days old it was said that the camera never lies, but in modern times with digital photography, sophisticated editing software, or even basic filters, the final photo can often look very different from the image which first appeared in the view finder.

Some clocks and watches can [be made to] ‘lie’ too – a readjustment of a setting, or through mechanical fault. Except for a sundial. It’s much harder to tamper with the position of the sun…but isn’t it ironic that a sundial points the time…with a shadow? 😉


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An alarming sense of time

Do we have a subconscious perception of time? Something deeper than our inbuilt body clock and connects us intricately with other souls or times?

Most of us have probably heard of our body clock – the internal clock that roughly speaking helps us to know when-abouts in the day we are. It might get scuppered a bit with long distance travelling in the ‘wrong’ direction (jet lag), but generally speaking it does pretty well (maybe with the exception of some self inflated middle managers who can’t seem to hold meetings to time!)

Birds and other creatures of nature seemingly set their body clocks to natural phenomenon like sunlight; studies have shown that they go doolally during total solar eclipses when it gets locally dark at a time not in sync with their body clock. Some marine life uses moonlight, and in some cases, even moon phase.

Perhaps us humans are not so different from animals – every now and then our body clocks need calibration – why else do we check our clocks and watches to make sure that we’re on track?

I think this is shown most clearly in the act of waking up – our bodies often wish to continue to sleep, despite years of training, when external time would suggest that it is time to rise and shine.

OK, it’s a fair point that there maybe biological requirements for sleep and energy recuperation.

But does it go deeper than that? Do we have a more subconscious perception of time? Something which goes deeper than our inbuilt insular body clock and connects us intricately with other souls or times as some say dreams do?

Alarm clock
What does the alarm clock know that we don’t?

Why do we wake up just before the alarm clock rings? Are we subconsciously aware that the the time is nigh? Or that the ringing of the clock is timed with an event in our dreams?

Some say that dreams allow our minds to wander through time…to stir up memories or to presuppose the future.

Or are dreams, as spiritualists might dare to believe, Plato’s realisation that they are a memory of the future?

Either way, alarm clocks pull us out of them, and we either fight to resist it or succumb to their calling us back to the fixed temporal time line. To recalibrate our sense of time, or at least to the frost of social agreement, if not convention.

I’m not convinced that we really need alarm clocks anyway. I found a brilliant article written by “Big Guy” at bigguymoney.com who indirectly holds the same view – alarm clocks wake us up in the wrong part of our sleep cycle, so we wake up disorientated and groggy. We’re better off without them (aside from social requirements such as work!).

The timing of our natural sleep cycle is at odds with external time; arguably the alarm clocks offers calibration. But it’s not always wanted!

In that article there is also a video clip about the snooze feature – which generally I love (it gives me more time in bed) but my wife hates (it wakes her up several times and yet at the same time doesn’t provide enough time to return back to a deep sleep.).

She has a point – indeed, the video suggests that if you just get up when the alarm clock goes off you’re more refreshed and awake than getting up after using the snooze feature, or simply sleeping for an extended but uninterrupted period.

An experiment to sleep through

There may be truth in that and being a scientist I had to test it! I repeatedly hit the snooze button…so many times that without realising it the hour hand eventually moved over and past the alarm hand and no longer triggered the alarm.

Yes, I overslept.

The following morning I switched off the snooze feature and aimed to get out of bed as soon as I woke. But I was too tired to get up, I fell back asleep, and with no snooze to reawake me…

I overslept.

Conclusion: I’m screwed either way!

A crazy notion anyway…

The idea of alarm clocks is crazy – that we desire an interruption to our normal biological requirement of sleeping.

But they only work in the morning. Obviously you can’t wake up in the evening before you’ve slept (time travel aside…!) but I’m talking here of the attitude; the expectation of a right to sleep in the evening isn’t carried through to the morning where we take efforts to bring ourselves out of sleep with an alarm clock

We’re much more likely to hear our neighbour banging on the wall late at night calling “Don’t you know what time it is? I’m trying to go to sleep!” than having him at the front door at 11:00 in the morning complaining of noise and demanding his right to a lie-in.

Perhaps teenagers are the most sensitive to this conundrum – they don’t want to go to sleep at night and don’t want to get up in the morning. Are they out of kilter with society, temporally displaced by a few hours, or more in tune with their inner sense of time?

A natural call

cockerel or rooster
What we did before alarm clocks: A natural start courtesy of a cockerel or rooster

Before alarms clocks we woke with the sound of a rooster, who, I guess, woke with the rising of the sun. It seems to be more harmonious, more natural to our own internal rhythm.

Yes, using alarm clocks seems to be altogether cuckoo!

Further experimental trials

A far cry from the call of nature is a call from the differential of space (i.e. motion!).

Apps exist which monitor how your body moves whilst it’s asleep, and from that determines which part of the sleep you’re in and when the best moment to wake up is. So a use of spatial motion to call us to time.

My experiment on that didn’t work either – my wife’s movements ‘contaminated’ the measurements. Although a former (single) colleague told me he had tried the app..

He told me he had tried it…when he got into work late as he’d overslept.

First things last…

My last trial (which really as a baseline should have been my first) was to wake up completely naturally with no alarm clock…except my oldest daughter (coming on 5) ironically woke up earlier on a Saturday morning than on a school day, ran into my bedroom and jumped on my belly. (Which woke me up!)


The seemingly overall conclusion is that the mind is [sometimes] willing but the flesh is weak. That is to say, tired.

Exception to the rule: Unless you’re a child (i.e. younger than our late-nighter / lying-in teenagers)

And what can we learn from this? That indeed an hour before midnight is worth 2 in the morning? An improbable route for time dilation, (just as “a stitch in time can save nine” – though seemingly a lot more efficient!). I don’t think so.

So much for the morning calibration of our sense of time. It doesn’t always work, and indeed we often wake up with not only temporal disorientation (“morning already?”, “what happened last night?”) but also spatial (“where am I?”, or “who are you?”).

So we turn to validation.

(Calibration is setting ourselves to be the same as everyone else; validation is making sure it’s been done correctly.)

How does coffee sound? Or an energy drink (or some other caffeine based product), children, or pure requirement?

Or simple resignation – usually reserved for Monday mornings…if you know when that is!


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