Time Globalized

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchStefan Klein has an editorial, Time Out of Mind, in today’s New York Times, where he writes “the quest to spend time the way we do money is doomed to failure, because the time we experience bears little relation to time as read on a clock. The brain creates its own time, and it is this inner time, not clock time, that guides our actions.”

 He elaborates on this argument as follows:

Inner time is linked to activity. When we do nothing, and nothing happens around us, we’re unable to track time… To measure time, the brain uses circuits that are designed to monitor physical movement. Neuroscientists have observed this phenomenon using computer-assisted functional magnetic resonance imaging tomography. When subjects are asked to indicate the time it takes to view a series of pictures, heightened activity is measured in the centers that control muscular movement, primarily the cerebellum, the basal ganglia and the supplementary motor area. That explains why inner time can run faster or slower depending upon how we move our bodies — as any Tai Chi master knows.Time seems to expand when our senses are aroused. Peter Tse, a neuropsychologist at Dartmouth, demonstrated this in an experiment in which subjects were shown a sequence of flashing dots on a computer screen. The dots were timed to occur once a second, with five black dots in a row followed by one moving, colored one. Because the colored dot appeared so infrequently, it grabbed subjects’ attention and they perceived it as lasting twice as long as the others did. 

Klein then links this argument to stress: “Believing time is money to lose, we perceive our shortage of time as stressful. Thus, our fight-or-flight instinct is engaged, and the regions of the brain we use to calmly and sensibly plan our time get switched off. We become fidgety, erratic and rash… Tasks take longer. We make mistakes — which take still more time to iron out. Who among us has not been locked out of an apartment or lost a wallet when in a great hurry? The perceived lack of time becomes real: We are not stressed because we have no time, but rather, we have no time because we are stressed.”

 His conclusion? “The remedy is to liberate ourselves from Franklin’s equation. Time is not money but ‘the element in which we exist,’ as Joyce Carol Oates put it more than two decades ago (in a relatively leisurely era). ‘We are either borne along by it or drowned in it’.”

 By coincidence, Kevin Birth, professor of anthropology at Queens College-CUNY, wrote us about our blog recently, highlighting his own work on time, anthropology and biology.  Birth has a recent article, “Time and the Biological Consequences of Globalization (full pdf).”  Given that we live on a “rotating globe where each locale has its own cycles of day and night,” our present globalized economic system produces some severe contradictions that people struggle with in everyday life: “temporal conflicts between locations on the globe, desynchronization of biological cycles, and lack of correspondence between those cycles and social life.”


We often manage many temporal cycles in our everyday lives—of sleep, seasons, pregnancy, recovery from illness, and others—yet work against “the homogenizing character of the calendar and the clock.”  Moreover, with the increase in the service sector, with work schedules outside the traditional 9-to-5, and the access that technology allows into our lives (I’m typing this at home), the impact of a globalized economy—one making our world and thus our local lives increasingly flat—our local chronobiology often has difficulty finding a rhythm.  Greg discussed some of this in relation to sleep in his post, Giant Sleep Machines and the Brain.

 Birth also argues for time-space compression due to the nearly instantaneous (in a human sense) flow of information and capital across the globe.  Media, telecommunications and global trading markets flow one into another across the globe.  However, in our embodied experience “the relationship of time and place, then, is psychologically, socially, and biologically encoded.”  An inherent contradiction arises between our lived selves and how our modern world systems have compressed global space-and-time.  It’s more than a calendar and a clock now, it’s an alteration of our own sense of time and place.  As Klein says in the editorial, we are stressed getting out the door because we believe we have no time.  The economically and culturally driven perception overrides our own everyday sense of things.

 Birth shows us once again the need to link social and biological studies on topics that cross-cut our academic disciplines.  Time is one of them; sport is another; addiction a third.  As Birth writes, “Linking natural and social phenomena is crucial to understanding social time, and consequently to understanding the interaction of homogenized time with local experiences of multiple socially and environmentally embedded cycles.”

Birth takes us one step further than Klein, who identifies time as internal, almost innate, rather than something intimately shaped by activity, cycles and flows that organize our life’s “time” in myriad ways.  Yes, going beyond “time is money” is one step in fighting growing homogenization.  A bigger step is reworking what we mean by time in the first place and why time is so valuable for reasons other than the global flow of capital and information and goods.

3 thoughts on “Time Globalized

  1. I am quite flattered by the mention of my work, and there are a couple things I’d like to add about dear ol’ Benjy Franklin.

    I often wonder the extent to which his proverbs are really just sarcastic jokes, and “time is money” is one such case.

    Franklin, the man who wrote “Early to bed; early to rise . . .” was notorious for sleeping in. In fact, legend has it that he came up with the idea for daylight savings time when his servant accidently did not shutter his east-facing window, thereby allowing the sun to wake him up long before his accustomed time. He realized all the daylight he missed by sleeping in, and mused that a shift of the clock would shift the daylight and still allow him to sleep in.

    So when we change our clocks this weekend, and sleepily adjust to our “losing” an hour of sleep because changing a clock is easier than changing our multiple biological rhythms, we can thank Ben.

  2. Pingback: More on sleep and time: the Letterman effect « Neuroanthropology

  3. Pingback: Months of the Year: Neuroanthropology 2008 « Neuroanthropology

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