It’s about time we talk about time

It is the time of the year when we look back and make plans for the coming year. Full of hope and with tons of new year’s eve resolutions we start into January. The brave ones among us might be able to implement some of the changes they spoke out with a glass of sparkling wine in their hands. However, for the majority of us, the picture looks different. At the end of January our persistence fades away and by December 2014 we ask ourselves: How did the year pass so quickly?

Paradoxly, time, which we are unable to directly sense, is dictating our lives. We can sense odors with our noses, hear noise with our ears and taste meals with our taste buds. But there is no equivalent sensory organ to perceive time. Still, time is incredible important in our society.

What is time?

In fact, time is a construction of the brain. The human biological clock follows a circadian rhythm, meaning a 24 hour cycle. This rhythm is used to temporally organize body functions and behavior. The master clock in our brain (an area called the suprachiasmic nucleus, SCN) makes sure that the inner timing is synchronized to the environment, as for example for humans, sleeping behavior makes sense at night. During the day we detect light through receptors in our retina and send this signal to the neurons of the SCN. They in turn inhibit the synthesis of melatonin, a hormone that signals the body that it is night.

Blue is the new black.

Does that mean that in an environment without sunset, like in the Arctic, one can never sleep? Luckily, the reindeers living there are also allowed to sleep, because they are one of the very few organisms on earth that lack daily cycles & an inner clock machinery. In contrast to reindeers however, humans are having their difficulties with additional lighting. Technology affects our circadian rhythm by exposing us to artificial light. Daily we consume emitted light from laptops, smartphone, tablets, TV, and so on (yep … light sources are unavoidable nowadays) until we go to bed. The massive increase in light production the past 50 years has been accompanied by decreasing sleeping time. 50 years ago less than 3% of the US adult population slept less than 6 hours per night, whereas today 30% sleep so little. But maybe technology can fix what it is causing. Not every light is influencing us to the same degree. Researchers found out that light composed of short wavelengths like blue light activates awakeness best, whereas red light poorly performs in activating our energy. Companies like Philips are already offering light devices to boost your energy with the right wavelength and at the right time of the day (testing your circadian rythm to choose the best light regim with their product is also available). Blue light can help to keep the productivity up after lunch whereas red light in the evening allows us to still light up the room without interfering with the body’s melatonin production.


Timing is everything.

If the inner body timing gets decoupled from the world outside, sleep deprivation and chronic exhaustion can come as a consequence. The most prominent example is jet lag. However, there are also more subtle and longtime “social jet lags” like inconsistent sleeping activities. Indeed, many of us know this: in need of an alarm clock to force oneself to go to work and sleeping in long on weekends. The misalignment between social time schedule and our biological clockwork has been implicated in diseases like diabetis, obesity and sleeping disorders. Some companies like Goldman Sachs and Procter&Gamble are investing in programs from sleep-hygiene courses to melatonin-regulating lighting to help employees to avoid exhaustion.

Besides individual sleeping habits, age also strongly influences our bedtime. As Martha Merrow showed us in her TEDxVienna Unlimited talk, teenagers are night owls and their staying-up-late-habit reaches its peak when they are around 20 years. From then onwards people tend to acquire earlier chronotypes. They wake up earlier and also do not stay up too late.

Apparently individual and age-related chronotypes should make us realize that social expectations of sleep and productivity according to a fixed timetable cannot be met by everyone equally easy.

Chronobiology expert Till Roenneberg explaining social jet lag:

Time perception.

Our above mentioned 24 periodicity aligned with the day and night cycle of the environment does not explain why at the end of every year we have the feeling that this year has passed so quickly compared to when you were a child. It has been long noticed when a person gets older, time speeds up. So how can it be that the same period of time can be perceived differently? David Eagleman, a neuroscientist, rejects the classical view of time as a river. He favors the idea that time is constructed in the brain and can be perceived according to the situation we are in. Time perception is thus a retrospective assessment. In life-threatening situations like a car accident, time seems to stretch and slow down. All brain resources are focused on this alerting situation and the event can be recorded in the brain very detailed. When this dense memory is recalled, the huge amount of data makes it appear longer than it actually was. So the more footage/memory is recorded the longer a period of time appears.  The older you grow, the less new events seem and your brain does not record your birthday, summer or work day any more in-depth. A more compact memory of this year is written down and gives the impression of a shorter year. Therefore, to make your life seem really long, challenge yourself everyday with new and exciting things and lay down a lot of memory!

Some advice on how to slow down time:

Image credits: Header: Royalty free, Photo 1: Imgur

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About Lisa Landskron

Being a scientist in the field of molecular biology & leading the TEDxVienna Blogger team, Lisa loves to do biochemical as well as digital experiments to create and spread ideas.

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