Parable of the Fingernails

fingernails

Photo Credit: adaenn via Compfight cc

How did it get so late so soon?  It’s night before it’s afternoon.  December is here before it’s June. My goodness how the time has flewn.  How did it get so late so soon?
–Dr. Seuss

I was sitting at my desk today trying to prioritize the things that need to be done to finish the semester.  I looked down at my fingers and noticed my fingernails. They were a little too long, so obviously it was time to cut them again.  Not a big deal. But just a minute, didn’t I cut them just last week? That couldn’t be, but I was pretty sure it wasn’t that long ago that I cut them.

Now remember I’m a scientist, I know how fast fingernails grow.

3 millimeters per month, 0.1 millimeter per day, that means they grow 1 nanometer per second.

Now as Americans, we don’t have the concept of millimeters in our heads much less nanometers. A nanometer is about the width of a molecule. Which means a human hair averages about 100,000 nanometers wide…100,000 seconds for my nails to grow the width of a human hair.

Okay, outside of ‘nerdsville’ that means fingernails grow slowly. So, if you are using your fingernails as a timekeeper, you have a very slow clock.

It also means it was about a month ago that I cut my nails.

You’ve heard of these sayings:

  • Time flies when you are having fun.
  • A watched pot never boils.
  • Be there in a second…
  • Just a minute…
  • A minute is not long, unless you’re waiting for the bathroom.

These sayings allude to some interesting facts about our timekeeping. You see, time is not something we sense. There needs to be a receptor to have a sensation. That makes time invisible, but we are able to perceive time or intervals of time.

However, perceiving time involves some psychological and physiological tricks. If you are engaged in an activity, you lose track of time and so it flies by, and if you are bored, time seems to drag along. If you have an urgent need, the seconds seem to last for hours.

Oddly enough, when the brain becomes engaged, it seems to record more memories than normal. This acts more like a slow motion camera, so more details are remembered which acts to slow time down. An example of this is when someone is in a car wreck and the details are remembered in slow motion. Time has not been perceived at a different rate, just more details are recorded during the time interval.

So if the brain filters out details, we perceive time differently than if it records all details available. And if you record more details, then the world around you seems to run in slow motion.

That is one way to explain Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). If ADHD kids record more information with their brains for particular time intervals, then the world runs too slow for their attention system.

Or if you noticed that the years seem to go by quicker as we get older, it might be because we recorded more new information during our adolescence which slowed down the perception of time. Now our brains don’t need to record as much and time passes quicker. In order to recover some of that youthful perception, we need to add novel experiences and information to our lives. Then the years would stop zooming by.

That is what happened with my time perception the past few weeks. With the lack of novel experiences, time was whizzing by and I didn’t notice until I looked at my fingernails. The sight of my talons brought my world back into focus.

Or maybe it was just that I had so much to do trying to finish up the last weeks of the semester that I lost track of time. I probably just need to manage my stress, kick off my shoes and…hey, my toenails seem a little long…

dsb