Parable of the Fingernails

fingernails

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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

 

The Time of Our Lives

“`If you knew Time as well as I do,’ said the Hatter, `you wouldn’t talk about wasting it. It’s him.’
 `I don’t know what you mean,’ said Alice.
 `Of course you don’t!’ the Hatter said, tossing his head contemptuously. `I dare say you never even spoke to Time!’
 `Perhaps not,’ Alice cautiously replied: `but I know I have to beat time when I learn music.’
 `Ah! that accounts for it,’ said the Hatter. `He won’t stand beating. Now, if you only kept on good terms with him, he’d do almost anything you liked with the clock…”

mad hatter

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  Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll.

Time is another one of those things we live with that is difficult to understand scientifically. We know about it, lose track of it, manage it, but when you try to define and explain it scientifically, it gets really weird.

The official unit of time is the second which is defined as the duration of 9,192,631,770 periods of the radiation corresponding to the transition between the two hyperfine levels of the ground state of the cesium 133 atom (told you it gets weird).

Time is considered by some to be the 4th dimension of space and is intricately bound with space. Time is relative to the position and speed traveling though space. For example, time on earth is different from time on the space shuttle (weird), and if you could reach the speed of light, time would stand “still”…

When we are working with time in our lives, we are looking more at the passing of time. We don’t want to define it; we want to keep track of it.

clock with lunar

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We use clocks and calendars to standardize the passing of time, so everyone is on the same page when it comes to time. The passing of time is really noticing the recurring rhythms that occur in our lives. Some powerful rhythms of time are the daily solar cycle, monthly lunar cycle and yearly seasonal cycle.

 

sunrise tree

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Our bodies contain internal timekeepers called biological clocks. These clocks set the timing of several physiological rhythms such as hormones, digestion, cell division, tissue repair, activity, sleep, etc. The multiple clocks are regulated by a master clock in the brain which is synchronized to 24 hr daily rhythm by sunlight. If all our internal rhythms stay in-sync with the daily rhythm, we feel better and function better.

Years ago, we worked sunrise to sunset and stayed pretty well synchronized with the 24 hr rhythm. With modern society, we’ve  altered our environment with electric lights to give us more productive time during our night. We’ve extended our working day. We are no longer at the mercy of the sunset. We can work as long as we want into the night.

He (Time) won’t stand beating.

If there is anyone trying to beat time, it would have to be college students.  College students are not known for their time management skills.  They wait until the last minute to finish projects or papers.  This makes for a lot of late, sleepless nights trying to beat the deadlines.  And of course, the fun doesn’t begin until after 10 pm. Everyone knows the movies are a better at the midnight premieres. College equals sleep deprivation.

Time won’t stand beating.

multiple clocks (2)

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Another problem is the body’s own internal timekeeper.  The biological clock has to be overridden in order to pull the all-nighters.  The light at night unsynchronizes the biological clock from the sunrise. Our body rhythms begin to get out of sync. Then after the late nights during the week, we sleep in on Saturday and Sunday which disrupts our biological clock even more. Then we have  to get up for 8 am class on Monday. The body clock has synchronized to the later time schedule and has to reset several hours to get back to normal. We have given ourselves artificial jet-lag. And jet-lag takes several days to get over so by the time our clocks are resynchronized, its back to oversleeping on the weekend again. We try to beat the internal clock in order to maintain our lifestyle. (Tweet This)

Time won’t stand beating. You know the old saying. if you can’t beat them, join them…

Now, if you only kept on good terms with him (time), he’d do almost anything you liked with the clock…

Keeping on good terms with your biological time means adjusting your habits.

  • Keep lighting as low as possible during the nighttime
  • Try to get plenty of sleep each night (close to 8 hours)
  • Try to get up at the same time each day, even on weekends
  • Limit naps and caffeine during the afternoon

When you do find yourself at odds with your clock, try to get out in the sunlight during the morning hours. Morning sunlight will help resynchronize your clock to the daily rhythm.

dsb