Fast forward

According to William J. Beaty

In his book “Surely You’re Joking…”, R. Feynman experimented with personal time sense, and he wondered what determines it. I think it might be social, not physiology. My first summer job was raking leaves on Elmira College campus, and it quickly became apparent that my normal rate of work was wrong. I did things much faster than the seasoned workers, and I attracted funny looks, so I adjusted my performance. I thought it was sort of stupid; why didn’t everyone rake leaves normally instead of in slow motion? But slow raking was the “way you’re supposed to do it,” and anyone who strayed from the norm would encounter group pressure to slow down. But… that’s how infants become people!!! We change behavior as we encounter immense nonverbal pressure from parents, friends, outsiders, etc., otherwise we’d all behave as one-year-olds even when adult. In different societies the standards are different; I’ve heard that tourists south of the border complain that everyone does everything slowly… and islanders complain about crazy Americans who are always rushing about. WHAT IF HUMAN TIME SENSE IS SOCIETALLY DETERMINED? I’ve experimented with this and find that it is. If I’m alone I can push myself to perform tasks much faster until until “faster” becomes habitual and unnoticed, but I get huge amounts of work done, and it takes forever for the clock to get to lunchtime. It feels like really waking up, at least until it starts being normal. Also, my usual body movements become tiring, and I find it’s much easier to move in curves rather than starting/stopping the considerable mass of limbs. (Like switching to ‘racewalk’ rather than just speeding up my normal walk.) And when I tried it for days at a time, I started losing weight and had to eat extra meals. If I asked someone a question or tried conversing, their slow responses and slow thinking was quite irritating. But whenever I kept all this up in public, people responded badly. They seemed to be thinking “what’s WRONG with that guy? What drug is HE on? Is he insane or something?” Bingo! That’s the societal pressure which usually keeps its members living at the “proper” speed. It’s the same as if I started acting like a 2-yr-old, or if I moved to a country where things happened at different speed: I’d encounter the same type of pressure to adapt. So… I wonder how far this can be pushed. Can we live at 5x normal? Will we get huge amounts of work done, then have a crash from “exhaustion of manic energy” or perhaps die prematurely of old age? Or go the other route and let the outer world speed up to 5x faster while we stay “the same.”

A lot of intriguing speculations there about the social impact on personal time sense, and it’s backed up by real experimental data. I would add — Is there an optimal life speed for provoking creativity? for concentration? for retention of studied material? Does concentration impact life speed? How long does it take a typical person to get in sync with new lifespeed norms after relocating? 

In addition to the theoretical/scientific questions raised, it seems to me like there’s a powerful effectiveness tool lurking here.  If you could just find a way to get in fine control of your own lifespeed! — fast-forwarding during a task that is just a means to ends (where the journey itself has little reward), but slo-moing during the good stuff (like enjoying a fine meal or making love).

An oft-quoted cynic said, “Life is like a buffet; it’s not good but there’s plenty of it.” On the contrary, my life has been like a gourmet restaurant; it’s great but the menu is in a foreign language. And at a gourment restaurant you wouldn’t ask the chef to dump the meal in a blender so you could wolf it down faster.



  1. According to David M. Eagleman

    Your brain, after all, is encased in darkness and silence in the vault of the skull. Its only contact with the outside world is via the electrical signals exiting and entering along the super-highways of nerve bundles. Because different types of sensory information (hearing, seeing, touch, and so on) are processed at different speeds by different neural architectures, your brain faces an enormous challenge: what is the best story that can be constructed about the outside world?

    The days of thinking of time as a river—evenly flowing, always advancing—are over. Time perception, just like vision, is a construction of the brain and is shockingly easy to manipulate experimentally.


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