Time, as we have known it, has only been with human beings for a small slice of human history. The story of time zones is fascinating, and really began once rail roads connected the United States. Before we had a standardized system for operating within time, human lives were ruled by the cycle of the sun and the seasons, not by the hands of a watch. This is important because it suggests that the time bounds we put on our lives, the hours of our schedules and work days, and the way we think about the time duration of meetings, movies, a good night’s sleep, and flights is not something our species truly evolved to operate within.
In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman shows one of the consequences of human history being out of sync with modern time. “The mind,” he writes, “is good with stories, but it does not appear to be well designed for the processing of time.”
I would argue that this makes sense and should be expected. Before we worked set schedules defined by the clock, before we could synchronize the start of a football game with TV broadcasts across the world, and before we all needed to be at the same place at precisely the right time to catch a departing train, time wasn’t very important. It was easy to tie time with sunrise, sunset, or mid-day compared to a 3:15 departure or a 7:05 kick-off. The passage of time also didn’t matter that much. The difference between being 64 and 65 years old wasn’t a big deal for humans that didn’t receive retirement benefits and social security payments. We did not evolve to live in a world where every minute of every day was tightly controlled by time and where the passage of time was tied so specifically to events in our lives.
For me, and I think for Daniel Kahneman, this may explain why we see some of the cognitive errors we make when we remember events from our past. Time wasn’t as important of a factor for ancient humans as story telling was. Kahneman continues,
“The remembering self, as I have described it, also tells stories and makes choices, and neither the stories nor the choices properly represent time. In storytelling mode, an episode is represented by a few critical moments, especially the beginning, the peak, and the end. Duration is neglected.”
When we think back on our lives, on moments that meant a lot to us, on times we want to relive, or on experiences we want to avoid in the future, we remember the salient details. We don’t necessarily remember how long everything lasted. My high school basketball days are not remembered by the hours spent running UCLAs, by the number of Saturdays I had to be up early for 8 a.m. practices, or by the hours spent in drills. My memories are made up of a few standout plays, games, and memorable team moments. The same is true for my college undergrad memories, the half-marathons I have raced, and my memories from previous homes I have lived in.
When we think about our lives we are not good at thinking about the passage of time, about how long we spent working on something, how long we had to endure difficulties, or how long the best parts of our lives lasted. We live with snapshots that can represent entire years or decades. Our remembering self drops the less meaningful parts of experiences from our memories, and holds onto the start, the end, and the best or worst moments from an experience. It distorts our understanding of our own history, and creates memories devoid of a sense of time or duration.
I think about this a lot because our minds and our memories are the things that drive how we behave and how we understand the present moment. However, duration neglect helps us see that reality of our lives is shaped by unreality. We are influenced by cognitive errors and biases, by poor memories, and distortions of time and experience. It is important to recognize how faulty our thinking can be, so we can develop systems, structures, and ways of thinking that don’t assume we are always correct, but help guide us toward better and more realistic ways of understanding the world.