Summer Fundraiser 2013, Day 4
The theme of this week’s fundraiser is the amplitude of time. That is: there’s plenty of it!
This little chunk of it — the seven days of our bleg, plus the wrap-up — has great significance for us, and we have to cram a lot into it: persuading our readers to help out, recording donations, writing thank-you notes, plus normal blogging activities.
In the larger scheme of things, however, it’s just another chunk of minutes, hours, and days, no different from all the rest. “Time be time,” as the Rasta character in Neuromancer says.
But is that true?
Except in the neighborhood of a singularity — e.g. a black hole — the dimension we experience as time is, for all practical purposes, linear and uniform. From a purely scientific standpoint, all intervals are similar, regardless of their magnitude. But that’s not the way we human beings experience time: a split-second is qualitatively as well as quantitatively different from a decade.
For the sake of philosophical contemplation, I have arbitrarily divided the human experience of time into five distinct types:
These categories are not simply larger or smaller versions of one another. Each has its own intrinsic characteristics, based on the subjective way the human psyche experiences it.
1. Micro Time
This is the interval of time that is perceived as an “instant”. Most of our existence passes without our being aware of it. However, there are certain occasions — most of them probably less than pleasant — when micro time dominates our experience. Take, for example, the split second between when your skidding car leaves the road and the front bumper hits the tree. Or the interval between when your foot slips on the ice and you land on your coccyx on the sidewalk.
Positive examples might include the moment of childbirth, or the triumphant sensation of being the first runner to breast the tape.
Micro time is the minimum unit of conscious human experience. The optic nerve transmits about twenty distinct images per second to the brain, so 0.05 seconds may be the smallest unit of micro time. Or there may be other senses — hearing, touch, proprioception — that have smaller units of transmission. But somewhere in that neighborhood lies the smallest quantum of experienced time. Below that we cannot go.
It would be impossible to live as a human being if everything were experienced in micro time. That’s why our brains are equipped to aggregate perceptions into discrete chunks of greater duration.
2. Conversational Time
Much of our experience is mediated by language. The exchange of information between people, or the recollection of such exchanges, or the imagining of them — this is the stuff of most of our routine existence. Those who adhere to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis assert that nothing can be thought without the mediation of language, which determines one’s thought-forms.
The temporal space in which conversation occurs forms what I call conversational time. It is bounded from below by the length of time it takes to form or hear a phoneme — which is a very brief interval, much smaller than a second. However, the more significant unit of conversational time is the morpheme, the smallest unit of language in which semantic meaning can be encoded. Collect these units into words and sentences, pass them back and forth, and you have conversational time.
A New Yorker can pack a lot of conversation into two or three seconds. In my part of the world, where the slow drawl is the order of the day, the same amount of meaning takes somewhat longer to convey. So the span of conversational time must remain elastic.
The upper limit for conversational time is hard to pin down, but it can’t really be more than a few minutes. After that the ebb and flow of what was said fades away, and the conversation has been “chunked” into encoded packets for later recall.
This is the realm of the agenda, the classroom, the bus schedule, and the workaday world. It contains all those experiences which are held in short-term memory, after the ephemera of the conversation have disappeared into oblivion.