Wednesday, November 29, 2017


Most of us have experienced the phenomenon of ‘time-dilation’, that is when an hour seems endless, longer than what you’re used to, say while enduring a boring movie -or the opposite, ‘time-contraction’- time flees and an hour seems to be over in a jiffy, say in the company of the beloved. It’s definitely not on account of the omission of divinity to replace the ageing battery-cells of the Godly cosmic clock…

We just discovered that another temporal phenomenon that bugs us often, usually ascribed to the advance of years, is but a manifestation of the same time-ductility. 

Suppose you are reading the morning newspapers, say two or three of them, one after the other. After the session, lasting maybe an hour, you have the urge to revisit one of the bytes that you came across. I for one have to wrestle with the broad-sheets in the replay, and usually the item surfaces further back in the sequence of reading than the impression I carried. That is, it is buried under a greater debris of time than one imagined, so to say. It may even involve misremembering the particular newspaper you assumed carried the think it was the ET while it turns out to be the Express, which in our case precedes other papers in the pecking order. Lots of our friends also have confessed to that nagging feeling, though some have reported the reverse- lesser actual time-debris than the perceived one.

Cut to Alfred Nobel. As we all noje, the 2017 Nobel for Physiology and Hygiene (he, he, he) went to Michael W. Young, Michael Rosbash and Jeffrey C. Hall for their discovery of molecular mechanisms controlling our circadian rhythms, or put simply, the biological clock. They isolated a gene (christened as the Period gene) that controls the biological rhythm in the fruit fly, which was simply the causa est in manibus,  i.e. case in hand, nothing special about fruit fly. The ‘Period’ gene in the fly’s cells creates and accumulates during night, a protein named the PER, which decays linearly, or may be exponentially, to almost ‘nil’ during the following day, thus marking the passage of time. This is essentially the same principle on which carbon-dating works. The accumulation of PER varies exponentially- the rate of production of the PER dwindles as the protein accumulates in the gene, ceasing altogether at the pre-determined full-tank level. Thus the process is self-regulating. That in a nut-shell is what the discovery is about. Such a hullabaloo I sayyyy...! 

Allied with the discovery, we find, should be an explanation to the phenomenon of ‘subjective time’ vis-a-vis ‘objective time’. The latter is also called ‘external time’, such as the time kept by a clock, while the former is progression of time as perceived by you, me or the humble fruit fly. The process of decay of the PER can be affected by various extraneous factors, impacting subjective time-lapse perception, and a possibility arises of a divergence of the two ‘times’, for the march of external time is relentless and unalterable. That is, for instance, why a boring college period seems to last say an hour, when actually it was half an hour long. As college students we’d think an Einsteinian time wave struck Don Bansal’s Determinants period, making the passage of time so excruciatingly slow.  This shenanigan lies at the heart of the freakonomic discovery recounted in this edition of our blog. Experts being experts call the phenomenon the ‘temporal illusion’.  Literature on the subject of TI lists illusions such as:

Ø  Telescoping effect, wherein people tend to recall events further back in time that they actually were (backward telescoping), no prizes for guessing what’s forward telescoping,

Ø  Vierordt’s Law- shorter intervals tend to be overestimated while longer intervals tend to be underestimated,

Ø   Time intervals encompassing numerically more changes may be  perceived as being longer than those covering lesser numbers,

Ø  The perceived time often shortens with motivation- boring tasks may appear longer than they actually are,

Ø  A task may appear longer if the progress thereof is interrupted,

Ø   Between auditory and visual signals, the former seem to drag on more,

Ø  Chronostasis, where the first impression following the introduction of a new task appears to be extended in time. An allied effect is the Oddball Effect- humans perceive duration of the initial event as greater, in a stream of identical events,

Ø  Emotions like awe, empathy, depression fear, or even age, drugs or diseases such as Parkinson’s, tend to affect subjective impression of time elapsed.

The above elegantly explains why the to journey always seems longer than the fro  journey- check Chronostasis and Oddball effect.

We come back to where we began. Our freakonomic streak suggests that in case of the newspaper reading business, when the subjective time-continuum is projected or mapped onto the objective time, what really happened, say, an hour back appears to have occurred maybe a quarter hour back. Forward-telescoping at work. The timespend on reading shortens in the imagination. Going by the fourth of the foregoing bullet-points, we are relieved at the vindication of our ancient belief that we enjoy reading papers and time has not yet taken toll of the motivation and excitement of reading the morning paper, even though R.K.Laxman is no more! So when trying to locate the article to be revisited, we should rather begin at the beginning. People who look upon the task as WORK, will be the ones succumbing to backward-telescoping, and will find the article closer at hand! Here is a pictorial depiction of what happened:


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