From December of 1986 to July of 1987, Maurizio Montalbini resided in a cave near Ancona, Italy. He lived in total solitude and in the absence of any natural light, and he broke a world record in the process. Really, though, he did it in the name of science, testing the physiological and psychological effects of isolation.
It’s now the month of April in the year 2020. If you’re residing on the planet earth, that most likely means you’ve been instructed to “shelter in place” to help stem the spread of COVID-19. You probably don’t like it, but you probably also understand why you’re doing it—or so we hope!
You might consider Montalbini’s feat an extreme, self-imposed version of the kind of sheltering-in-place order by which we’re all currently abiding. ″One cannot fight solitude; one must make a friend of it,″ he said upon his return to normalcy—a rallying cry for the times we find ourselves in, if ever we’ve heard one!
This story got us to thinking about a few things. We know all too well what the phrase “sheltering in place” entails. These unexpected changes in routine are playing some tricks not just on where we can be, but also when we can be—kind of. With Mr. Montalbini the erstwhile cave-dweller as our tour guide, we humbly invite you down our internet rabbit hole of curiosity to explore the totally made-up concept of “sheltering in time.”
Rabbit Hole Stop #1
Your daily routine has almost surely taken an extreme detour in recent weeks. Abrupt changes in routine have a funny way of playing tricks on you. Do the days seem longer to you? Do they seem shorter? Does it feel as though months and months have passed, when really only a couple of weeks have gone by?
Think about how sheltering in place may have altered your perception of time. And then, imagine what would happen to your perception of time if you were to live in isolation for as long as Maurizio Montalbini did!
When he emerged from his cave dwelling and happily reintroduced himself to sunlight, Montalbini had been living in isolation for 210 days. However, he was convinced that only 79 days had passed. His circadian rhythms had been, to say the least, wildly thrown off course.
Circadian rhythms are those bodily functions and activities that run according to an endlessly repeating 24-hour cycle. “Circadian” comes from the Latin words for “around” and “day.” Your sleep cycle, your body temperature, your level of alertness—they’re all circadian rhythms. If you’ve ever gotten into the habit of waking up just a few minutes before your alarm goes off in the morning, then your circadian rhythms were running like, well, clockwork.
When Montalbini thought only 79 days had passed when really 210 had gone by, it’s as if his mind and body had tricked themselves into thinking that a single day lasted, on average, 64 hours!
As is the case with most things in the realm of science, circadian rhythms are complicated. Dr. Joseph Takahashi, a neuroscientist, wrote one of the foundational papers about the genetic basis of circadian rhythms—the so-called “CLOCK gene.”
Rabbit Hole Stop #2
On October 15, 1964, Craig Breedlove strapped himself into a rocket-powered car at a Utah salt flat and hit the spectacularly fast speed of 526 miles per hour. In so doing, he broke his own world record for fastest land speed. (The current land-speed record is over 200 miles per hour faster, by the way!)
Given the nature of his world-record-breaking performance, one has to assume that Breedlove would not have had the patience to join Montalbini in his cave for any extended period of time, let alone 210 days. Breedlove lived the life of a speed demon, while Montalbini lived the life of a hermit. Breedlove’s feat does give rise, however, to similarly mysterious questions about the perception of time.
What’s most fascinating about Breedlove’s record is not the speed he achieved, but rather the sequence of events that took place when he tried to slow down. His drogue chutes failed to deploy, his brakes exploded, and he flew—maybe literally, at one point—through the Utah salt flat before crashing—unhurt!—into a pond.
As the filmmaker Hollis Frampton tells it in an essay that mentions this story, Breedlove’s out-of-control crash took only 8.7 seconds to unfold. And yet, in the interview that immediately followed, it took him over 90 minutes to analyze the crash. That means he devoted roughly 1,000 words to describe each individual second of the ordeal. “Compared to the historic interval he refers to,” Frampton writes, “his ecstatic utterance represents, according to my calculation, a temporal expansion in the ratio of some 655 to 1.”
You’ve heard the phrase “time flies when you’ve having fun.” In Breedlove’s case, you might say that time essentially stopped when he was having the opposite of fun. Have you ever had a split-second experience that made time stop?
(If you watch the video below, by the way, you’ll see that Frampton may have exaggerated his calculations a little bit.)
Rabbit Hole Stop #3
Did you know that it took until 1977 for the International Association of Athletics Federations to start measuring the 100-meter dash in hundredths of seconds? Until that point, the world record for foot races was measured less precisely, in tenths of seconds.
This has everything to do with the precision of timing mechanisms, of course, but it also has plenty to do with the very nature of time. Sometimes time flies, and sometimes it stands still. And sometimes, it’s time to get philosophical about time. Now is one of those times.
For over two thousand years, humans have debated how time is actually structured. We know that days are made of hours, and that hours are made of minutes, and that minutes are made of seconds, and that seconds are made of tenths of seconds, and so forth and so on.
But can time really be broken down into an infinite number of discrete parts, much as a line can be broken down into an infinite number of points? It makes sense that we would think of time in this way, right? It’s precise. It’s logical.
Think for a moment, though, about a totally different concept of time:
Some philosophers think that our perception of time is more important that the way science tells us to organize time. They say that time does not actually exist outside our mind’s experience of it. They talk about the idea of a “thickened” present, in which one moment in time for one person might last longer than that same moment in time for someone else. They talk about how the speed one is traveling at any one instant helps determine how long time actually lasts. When Craig Breedlove crashed his car in 1964, for instance, he may very well have spent those 8.7 seconds reliving the entirety of his life to that point!
Basically, we’re talking about the relativity of time. You may have heard of it, just as you may have heard of its most famous advocate, Albert Einstein. Watch the video below for a succinct exploration of this idea.
Rabbit Hole Stop #4
Those same philosophers that argue for the relativity of time also argue that the present moment actually contains a bit of the past as well. How much of the past each present moment contains, they say, depends on who the person is and what they’re experiencing at the time.
These philosophers who say that the present moment can’t so easily be broken up into individual sections of time have a metaphor they like to lean on. It’s about music. It’s called “the melody metaphor.” If the past didn’t exist in the present, they argue, then our brains would not be able to process melodies. We would hear just a single note during each present moment and would never be able to make out the full tune.
Here’s how one philosopher put it:
A melody to which we listen with our eyes closed, heed-Henri Bergson, Duration and Simultaneity, 1922
ing it alone, comes close to coinciding with this time which is
the very fluidity of our inner life; but it still has too many
qualities, too much definition, and we must first efface the difference among the sounds, then do away with the distinctive
features of sound itself, retaining of it only the continuation
of what precedes into what follows and the uninterrupted
transition, multiplicity without divisibility and succession with-
out separation, in order finally to rediscover basic time. Such is immediately perceived duration, without which we would have no idea of time.
Rabbit Hole Stop #5
If you were to paint a single picture to represent this strange time in your life, what would you paint?
On the one hand, your life is likely very different now than it was before the outbreak of COVID-19. So you might think to paint something that represents upheaval and change—something blurred, asymmetrical, hard to decipher. Maybe it feels as though you’re spinning your tires, watching time zoom past even as you stay fixed in one spot. Maybe the past is blending into the future, making each passing present moment one big question mark. Maybe you’re feeling like the little dachshund in the painting below, with one day’s activities superimposed on the next day’s.
On the other hand, time might be moving very slowly for you now, since you probably don’t have access to all the fun things that used to make time fly. So maybe you would think about painting a simple still life—something requiring slow, methodical study. Maybe you find yourself with enough spare time to stare at a basket of fruit sitting in your kitchen. Maybe you find yourself paying more attention to the way the light from the window hits it at different times of the day. In the pre-YouTube, pre-Fortnite, pre-TikTok era, the Italian artist Caravaggio had plenty of time to painstakingly study the play of light and shadow on a basket of fruit. Maybe a scene like this better represents your frame of mind right now.
Rabbit Hole Stop #6
By the way, if these philosophical flights of fancy and artistic diversions drive you crazy and you much prefer the idea of time being composed of an infinite number of individual segments, there’s a branch of mathematics you might be interested in!
It’s called calculus. There’s no time like the present to learn it!