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November 10, 2021
Is Time Even Real? Let's Examine This Universal Stoner Thought

BY BEN THOMAS | Original illustration for Ember by Jess Ebsworth

This past week's switch to Daylight Saving Time has a lot of us (including yours truly) wondering just how real a thing time actually is. One morning every fall, we wake up at “the same time” we do every day, only to find it’s somehow an hour earlier. 

Does this mean our country has the power to change time itself? Who makes these decisions, and what’s the reasoning behind them? Let’s take a closer look at attempts to change, expand, and even abolish time—and discover just how real it actually is.

The strange history of saving daylight

While you might’ve learned in school that Daylight Saving Time (DST) was created to give farmers more hours of daylight, the truth is that it actually disrupts farmers’ schedules. In fact, the U.S. farm lobby has repeatedly campaigned against Daylight Savings. When America first experimented with DST in the midst of World War I—hoping people would consume less electricity if they had an extra hour of daylight—nationwide “revolt from the farm lobby” forced Congress to repeal the practice before the war was even over.

Although President Franklin D. Roosevelt reinstated DST during World War II, ongoing pressure from the farm lobby got the program cancelled again until 1966, when Congress passed the Uniform Time Act to bring the whole country under the same DST scheme—with the exceptions of Hawaii and Arizona, which refuse to participate in the system to this day.

However, the DST program’s most vocal advocates (and biggest winners) have been an unlikely alliance of convenience store operators, golf course owners, barbecue grill manufacturers and candy companies. In the mid-1980s, lobbyists from all these industries pressured Congress to add an extra month to DST, on the basis that Americans would leave the house during those sunlit evenings—and spend more money on gas and entertainment.

The lobbyists were right. The Association for Convenience and Fuel Retailing estimates that the convenience store industry has gained tens of billions in sales since the group’s 1985 push to add a month to DST. Lobbyists for the golf industry report $200 million in golf club sales and greens fees since the extra DST was added in 1986—while the barbecue industry reports they’ve reaped a cool $100 million in sales of grills and charcoal over that same period.

As for the candy industry, their lobbyists “put candy pumpkins on the seat of every senator” during the 1985 hearings, hoping to get DST extended even further to cover Halloween. However, Big Candy had to wait until 2005 to get their wish, when President George W. Bush signed a bill expanding DST to cover a full eight months of the calendar—an imbalanced system that remains in force today.

That’s why many of us (including, again, yours truly) were surprised to discover that 2021’s “spring forward” began three weeks earlier than expected, on the second Sunday in March—while we were surprised again to find ourselves “falling back” an hour on November 4th, a full week later than we’re used to. Although these changes have been in place since 2005, they still feel a bit odd, and tend to disorient us afresh every year.

And DST isn’t the only instance when a shift in time can leave us feeling disoriented. What about communities that try to erase time altogether?

Attempts to erase the concept of time itself

If you’ve ever spent a night partying on the Las Vegas Strip, you may have noticed strange things happening to your time perception. Many casinos, restaurants and indoor shopping areas stay open 24 hours a day—leaving you free to stroll endlessly through brightly lit, climate controlled spaces where clocks don’t exist, and all sense of linear time seems to vanish.

Las Vegas isn’t alone in trying to cancel the clock. In 2019, the tiny Norwegian town of Sommarøy made international news for deciding to “erase the concept of time” during their sunless winter nights and nightless summer days (prompting The Outline to ask "Can we abolish time?"). “Our goal is to provide full flexibility, 24/7,” said the campaign’s leader. “If you want to cut the lawn at 4am, then you do it.” 

But can abolishing time really be so simple? When we scratch beneath the surface, the idea unfolds into a kaleidoscope of strange concepts, all connected by one deep and enduring mystery: what exactly is time, anyway?

The reason we need clocks

When we compare the cases of Vegas and Sommarøy, one difference immediately becomes clear. Vegas eliminated clocks and closing hours to create a perception of a place without time, where the fun (and the spending) never stop. In Sommarøy, by contrast, sun-free winters and night-free summers have naturally altered residents’ time perceptions, leading campaigners to conclude that clocks are overrated.

This distinction is subtle, yet absolutely crucial. It demonstrates that the word “time” can refer to two very different things: a mode of sensory perception (passing time), as well as a mode of measurement (clock time). Sommarøy doesn’t really want to “erase the concept of time”—they just want to get rid of clocks. Truly erasing time would be a much trickier proposition.

The word “time” can refer to two very different things: a mode of sensory perception (passing time), as well as a mode of measurement (clock time).

Our perceptions of time’s passing, however, are also surprisingly vulnerable to distortion; Vegas’s 24/7 consumer paradise being just one example. We all know that “time flies when you’re having fun”—or, as Einstein allegedly said, “When a pretty girl sits on your lap for an hour, it seems like a minute. When you sit on a hot stove for a minute, it seems like an hour.” In other words, we need clocks precisely because our perceptions of time are so unreliable.

What’s more, measurement and perception are only two of time’s many faces. The mystery thickens still further when memory enters the picture.

Eternity in a flash

A single day at a boring job can stretch on for an eternity; yet somehow, six months can disappear before we know it, leaving us wondering “where all the time went.” Where indeed? How can hundreds of workdays—each seemingly endless in itself—pass so quickly in retrospect?

Our perceptions of passing time, in the moment, don’t translate very accurately into memories of time already passed. For example, neuroscience research shows that return journeys often seem to take less time than outbound trips. There’s a twist, however: return trips that follow a different route seem to take the same time as outbound ones. 

Why this inconsistency? Because our brains’ long-term memory system “compresses” redundant memories to make room for new ones. That means we remember all kinds of details about a trip we’re taking for the first time—but we only recall the new and unique details of a return trip along the same route. Result: the outbound journey feels as if it took longer, because we recall more about it.

Deep in our brains’ long-term memory archive, even our subjective perceptions of time can get lost in translation, and a day-long eternity can pass in a retrospective flash. This begs an obvious question: is time even a real thing at all—or is it just an illusion? 

Enter: a realm beyond time

In the 2016 movie Arrival (based on Ted Chiang’s masterful short-fiction work, "Story of Your Life”), a linguist confronts the mind-bending challenge of communicating with aliens who experience time in a nonlinear way. These beings’ four-dimensional senses let them see into the future as easily as we glance up the street—leading the scientist to question whether we have to perceive time at all, or if it’s just a limitation of our flawed primate brains.

According to some researchers, even certain human cultures have no concept of linear time. For example, in his seminal work on the Nuer people of southern Sudan, anthropologist E. E. Evans-Pritchard writes, “The Nuer have no expression equivalent to ‘time’ in our language, and they cannot, therefore, as we can, speak of time as though it were something actual, which passes, can be wasted, can be saved, and so forth.” 

“The Nuer have no expression equivalent to ‘time’ in our language, and they cannot, therefore, as we can, speak of time as though it were something actual, which passes, can be wasted, can be saved, and so forth.”

But even if Nuer people don’t measure or talk about time, we can safely assume that they—like all human beings—still perceive time's passing, and remember it as having passed. In fact, it’s hard to even imagine what true nonlinear time perception would feel like. Would past and present events appear to be happening all at once? Would we “remember” the future as easily as the past?

Strange as it may sound, there is a realm where such things are possible. At the quantum level, cause and effect can be reversed, objects can exist in multiple places at once, and even time itself can flow “upstream.” In fact, quantum theory doesn’t require time to flow in any single direction — the math says it should flow backward just as easily. (If it ever does, would we be able to tell the difference?)

In light of all this, we might conclude that time truly is no more than an illusion. But these discoveries actually indicate the exact opposite: time is a real property of the physical universe; measurable, quantifiable, and describable in equations—albeit bizarre and perplexing ones. 

Our perceptions can distort time, our memories can squash and stretch it, and our anti-clock campaigners can claim to erase it. Yet through it all, time endures—even as its mysteries grow ever deeper.


Ben Thomas is a journalist and novelist who's lived in 40+ countries. He specializes in telling stories from the frontiers of science, history, culture and the cosmos—and the points where all these fields intersect.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. Products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.
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