People tend to reflexively assume that fun events – like vacations – will go by really quickly.
For many people, summer vacation can't come soon enough – especially for the half of Americans who canceled their summer plans last year due to the pandemic.
But when a vacation approaches, do you ever get the feeling that it's almost over before it starts?
If so, you're not alone.
In some recent studies Gabriela Tonietto, Sam Maglio, Eric VanEpps and I conducted, we found that about half of the people we surveyed indicated that their upcoming weekend trip felt like it would end as soon as it started.
This feeling can have a ripple effect. It can change the way trips are planned – you might, for example, be less likely to schedule extra activities. At the same time, you might be more likely to splurge on an expensive dinner because you want to make the best of the little time you think you have.
Where does this tendency come from? And can it be avoided?
Not all events are created equal
When people look forward to something, they usually want it to happen as soon as possible and last as long as possible.
We first explored the effect of this attitude in the context of Thanksgiving.
We chose Thanksgiving because almost everyone in the U.S. celebrates it, but not everyone looks forward to it. Some people love the annual family get-together. Others – whether it's the stress of cooking, the tedium of cleaning or the anxiety of dealing with family drama – dread it.
So on the Monday before Thanksgiving in 2019, we surveyed 510 people online and asked them to tell us whether they were looking forward to the holiday. Then we asked them how far away it seemed, and how long they felt it would last. We had them move a 100-point slider – 0 meaning very short and 100 meaning very long – to a location that reflected their feelings.
As we suspected, the more participants looked forward to their Thanksgiving festivities, the farther away it seemed and shorter it felt. Ironically, longing for something seems to shrink its duration in the mind's eye.
Winding the mind's clock
Most people believe the idiom “time flies when you're having fun," and research has, indeed, shown that when time seems to pass by quickly, people assume the task must have been engaging and enjoyable.
We reasoned that people might be over-applying their assumption about the relationship between time and fun when judging the duration of events yet to happen.
As a result, people tend to reflexively assume that fun events – like vacations – will go by really quickly. Meanwhile, pining for something can make the time leading up to the event seem to drag. The combination of its beginning pushed farther away in their minds – with its end pulled closer – resulted in our participants' anticipating that something they looked forward would feel as if it had almost no duration at all.
In another study, we asked participants to imagine going on a weekend trip that they either expected to be fun or terrible. We then asked them how far away the start and end of this trip felt like using a similar 0 to 100 scale. 46% of participants evaluated the positive weekend as feeling like it had no duration at all: They marked the beginning and the end of the vacation virtually at the same location when using the slider scale.
Thinking in hours and days
Our goal was to show how these two judgments of an event – the fact that it simultaneously seems farther away and is assumed to last for less time – can nearly eliminate the event's duration in the mind's eye.
We reasoned that if we didn't explicitly highlight these two separate pieces – and instead directly asked them about the duration of the event – a smaller portion of people would indicate virtually no duration for something they looked forward to.
We tested this theory in another study, in which we told participants that they would watch two five-minute-long videos back-to-back. We described the second video as either humorous or boring, and then asked them how long they thought each video would feel like it lasted.
We found that the participants predicted that the funny video would still feel shorter and was farther away than the boring one. But we also found that participants believed it would last a bit longer than the responses we received in the earlier studies.
This finding gives us a way to overcome this biased perception: focus on the actual duration. Because in this study, participants directly reported how long the funny video would last – and not the perceived distance of its beginning and its end – they were far less likely to assume it would be over just as it started.
While it sounds trivial and obvious, we often rely on our subjective feelings – not objective measures of time – when deciding how long a period of time will feel and how to best use it.
So when looking forward to much-anticipated events like vacations, it's important to remind yourself just how many days it will last.
You'll get more out of the experience – and, hopefully, put yourself in a better position to take advantage of the time you do have.
Can one equation unite all of physics?
- "It's no exaggeration to say that the greatest minds of the entire human race have made proposals for this grand final theory of everything," says theoretical physicist Michio Kaku.
- This theory, also known as the God Equation, would unify all the basic concepts of physics into one. According to Kaku, the best, most "mathematically consistent" candidate so far is string theory, but there are objections.
- "The biggest objection is you can't test it," Kaku explains, "but we're getting closer and closer."
Ever lose track of time while doing something? It gets worse with a VR headset on.
- Gamers often report losing track of time while playing, but virtual reality headsets amplify this effect.
- Test subjects using headsets were off by an average 28.5 percent more than those using a typical screen.
- A potential application of this finding is using it to help people endure difficult medical procedures, such as chemotherapy.
Whenever we're immersed in something, time goes by quickly. This is a particularly common occurrence for people who play video games. Glancing up at the clock, gamers are surprised by how many hours have vanished.
This phenomenon has a name: time compression. And a new study on it shows that the effect is greatly amplified for people using virtual reality.
Let's do the time warp again
A screen shot of the maze game used in the study. Notice the reminder to stop playing when time is up. Citation: Timing & Time Perception 2021; 10.1163/22134468-bja10034
The participants, all college students getting credit for participation, were asked to play a game either using a typical computer screen or by using an Oculus Rift VR headset. The game was a simple maze activity. Players tried to tilt a maze (such as the one seen above) to move a ball to the gold block at the end. Guiding the ball into a hole would cause the level to reset. They were asked to estimate when five minutes had passed and to stop playing at that time. Observers in the next room recorded how long it actually took.
After playing on their first device, players were asked to switch to the other where they repeated the experiment.
The study initially involved 41 participants, though two of them provided estimates that were so incredibly bonkers that they had to be excluded. (Perhaps these two wandered into a mental wormhole?) Those playing the game with the headset estimated that five minutes (300 seconds) had elapsed after an average of 327.4 seconds; those playing on a monitor estimated that five minutes elapsed after 254.8 seconds, a difference of 72.6 seconds.
Interestingly, this time compression only occurred when participants played using the VR headset first. This may have been because those who used the monitor first were better able to judge the length of time having already played it on a regular screen.
Let's do the time warp again
Why does time compression occur? One possibility is that being totally immersed within a VR environment prevents a person from observing their own body. Bodily awareness appears to be linked to accurate time perception, and people in a VR environment are deprived of this awareness. Thus, their perception of time becomes warped.
The researchers' findings have important implications, especially for gamers as VR becomes more popular:
"Time compression might cause VR users to unintentionally spend excessive amounts of time in games, especially as [head-mounted displays] become more comfortable to wear for long sessions. Even non-immersive games entail some risk of addiction, which has been associated with depression and insomnia (Kuss & Griffiths, 2012). VR games may pose a greater risk of interfering with their players' sleep schedules, mood, and health by reducing their ability to notice the passage of time. Developers should take care not to create virtual 'casinos'; a clock should always be easily accessible, and perhaps even appear automatically at regular intervals"
On a more positive note, the study reinforces the findings of a previous one showing that patients undergoing chemotherapy sessions while using VR headsets also reported time compression effects. Other research shows that VR is a surprisingly effective painkiller through the power of distraction.
In the future, VR won't just be for video gamers. It could play an important role in medicine and patient care.
Can spacekime help us make headway on some of the most pernicious inconsistencies in physics?
- Our linear model of time may be holding back scientific progress.
- Spacekime theory can help us better understand the development of diseases, financial and environmental events, and even the human brain.
- This theory helps us better utilize big data, develop AI, and can even solve inconsistencies in physics.
We take for granted the western concept of linear time. In ancient Greece, time was cyclical and if the Big Bounce theory is true, they were right. In Buddhism, there is only the eternal now. Both the past and the future are illusions. Meanwhile, the Amondawa people of the Amazon, a group that first made contact with the outside world in 1986, have no abstract concept of time. While we think we know time pretty well, some scientists believe our linear model hobbles scientific progress. We're missing whole dimensions of time, in this view, and our limited perception could be the last obstacle to a sweeping theory of everything.
Theoretical physicist Itzhak Bars of the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, is the most famous scientist with such a hypothesis, known as two-time physics. Here, time is 2D, visualized as a curved plane interwoven into the fabric of the "normal" dimensions—up-down, left-right, and backward-forward. While the hypothesis is over a decade old, Bars isn't the only scientist with such an idea. But what's different with spacekime theory is that it uses a data analytics approach, rather than a physics one. And while it posits that there are at least two dimensions of time, it allows for up to five.
In the spacekime model, space is 5D. Besides the ones we normally encounter, the extra dimensions are so infinitesimally small, we never notice them. This relates to the Kaluza–Klein theory developed in the early 20th century, which stated that there might be an extra, microscopic dimension of space. In this view, space would be curved like the surface of Earth. And like Earth, those who travel the entire distance would, eventually, loop back to their place of origin.
Kaluza-Klein theory unified electromagnetism and gravity, but wasn't accepted at the time, although it did help in the search for quantum gravity. The concept of additional dimensions was revived in the 1990s with Paul Wesson's Space-Time-Matter Consortium. Today, proponents of superstring theory say there may be as many as 10 different dimensions, including nine of space and one of time.
The Spacekime model
Spacekime theory was developed by two data scientists. Dr. Ivo Dinov is the University of Michigan's SOCR Director, as well as a professor of Health Behavior and Biological Sciences, and Computational Medicine and Bioinformatics. SOCR stands for: Statistics Online Computational Resource designs. Dr. Dinov is an expert in "mathematical modeling, statistical analysis, computational processing, scientific visualization of large datasets (Big Data) and predictive health analytics." His research has focused on mathematical modeling, statistical inference, and biomedical computing.
His colleague, Dr. Milen Velchev Velev, is an associate professor at the Prof. Dr. A. Zlatarov University in Bulgaria. He studies relativistic mechanics in multiple time dimensions, and his interests include "applied mathematics, special and general relativity, quantum mechanics, cosmology, philosophy of science, the nature of space and time, chaos theory, mathematical economics, and micro-and-macroeconomics."
Drs. Dinov and Velev began developing spacekime theory around four or five years ago, while working with big data in the healthcare field. "We started looking at data that intrinsically has a temporal dimension to it," Dr. Dinov told me during a video chat. "It's called longitudinal or time varying data, longitudinal time variance—it has many, many names. This is data that varies with time. In biomedicine, this is the de facto, standard data. All big health data is characterized by space, time, phenotypes, genotypes, clinical assessments, and so forth."
A better way to manage big data
"We started asking big questions," Dinov said. "Why are our models not really fitting too well? Why do we need so many observations? And then, we started playing around with time. We started digging and experimenting with various things. And then we realized two important facts.
"Number one, if we use what's called color-coded representations of the complex plane, we can define spacekime, or higher dimensional spacetime, in such a way that it agrees with the common observations that we make in (the longitudinal time series in) ordinary spacetime. That agreement was very important to us, because it basically says, yes, the higher dimensional theory does not contradict our common observations.
"The second realization was that, since this extra dimension of time is imperceptible, we needed to approximate, model, or estimate, one of the unobservable time characteristics, which we call the kime phase. After about a year, we discovered that there is a mathematically elegant tool called the Laplace Transform that allows us to analytically represent time series data as kime-surfaces. Turns out, the spacekime mathematical manifold is a natural, higher dimensional extension of classical Minkowski, four-dimensional spacetime."
Our understanding of the world is becoming more complex. As a result, we have big data to contend with. How do we find new ways to analyze, interpret and visual such data? Dinov believes spacekime theory can help in some pretty impressive ways. "The result of this multidimensional manifold generalization is that you can make scientific inferences using smaller data samples. This requires that you have a good model or prior knowledge about the phase distribution," he said. "For instance, we can use spacekime process representation to better understand the development or pathogenesis to model the distributions of certain diseases.
"Suppose we are evaluating fMRIs of Alzheimer's disease subjects. Assume we know the kime phase distribution for another cohort of patients suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Lou Gehrig's disease. The ALS kime-phase distribution could be used for evaluating the Alzheimer's patients," and many other neurodegenerative populations. Dinov also thinks spacekime analytics could help improve political polling, increase our understanding of complex financial and environmental events, and even the innerworkings of the human brain, all without having to take the huge samples required today to make accurate models or predictions. Spacekime theory even offers opportunities to design novel AI analytical techniques. But it goes beyond that.
The problem of time
Spacekime theory can help us make headway on some of the most pernicious inconsistencies in physics, such as Heisenberg's uncertainty principle and the seemingly irreconcilable rift between quantum physics and general relativity, what's known as "the problem of time."
Dinov wrote that the "approach relies on extending the notions of time, events, particles, and wave functions to complex-time (kime), complex-events (kevents), data, and inference-functions." Basically, working with two points of time allows you to make inferences on a radius of points associated with a certain event. With Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, according to this model, since time is a plane, a certain particle would be in one position or phase, time-wise, in terms of velocity, and another phase, in terms of position.
This idea of hidden dimensions of time is a little like Plato's allegory of the cave or how an X-ray signifies what's underneath, but doesn't convey a 3D image. From a data science perspective, it all comes down to utility. Dinov believes that if we can calculate the true phase dispersion of complex phenomena, we can better understand and control them.
Drs. Dinov and Velev's book on spacekime theory comes out this August. It's called "Data Science: Time Complexity, Inferential Uncertainty, and Spacekime Analytics".
Two new studies examine ways we could engineer human wormhole travel.
- Sci-fi movies and books love wormholes—how else can we hope to travel through interstellar distances?
- But wormholes are notoriously unstable; it's hard to keep them open or make them big enough.
- Two new papers offer some hope in solving both of these issues, but at a high price.
Imagine if we could cut paths through the vastness of space to make a network of tunnels linking distant stars somewhat like subway stations here on Earth? The tunnels are what physicists call wormholes, strange funnel-like folds in the very fabric of spacetime that would be—if they exist—major shortcuts for interstellar travel. You can visualize it in two dimensions like this: Take a piece of paper and bend it in the middle so that it makes a U shape. If an imaginary flat little bug wants to go from one side to the other, it needs to slide along the paper. Or, if there were a bridge between the two sides of the paper the bug could go straight between them, a much shorter path. Since we live in three dimensions, the entrances to the wormholes would be more like spheres than holes, connected by a four-dimensional "tube." It's much easier to write the equations than to visualize this! Amazingly, because the theory of general relativity links space and time into a four-dimensional spacetime, wormholes could, in principle, connect distant points in space, or in time, or both.
A wormhole connecting two points in space.
Credit: TDHster via Adobe Stock
The idea of wormholes is not new. Its origins reach back to 1935 (and even earlier), when Albert Einstein and Nathan Rosen published a paper constructing what became known as an Einstein-Rosen bridge. (The name 'wormhole' came up later, in a 1957 paper by Charles Misner and John Wheeler, Wheeler also being the one who coined the term 'black hole.') Basically, an Einstein-Rosen bridge is a connection between two distant points of the universe or possibly even different universes through a tunnel that goes into a black hole. Exciting as the possibility is, the throats of such bridges are notoriously unstable and any object with mass that ventures through it would cause it to collapse upon itself almost immediately, closing the connection. To force the wormholes to stay open, one would need to add a kind of exotic matter that has both negative energy density and pressure—not something that is known in the universe. (Interestingly, negative pressure is not as crazy as it seems; dark energy, the fuel that is currently accelerating the cosmic expansion, does it exactly because it has negative pressure. But negative energy density is a whole other story.)
If wormholes exist, if they have wide mouths, and if they can be kept open (three big but not impossible ifs) then it's conceivable that we could travel through them to faraway spots in the universe. Arthur C. Clarke used them in "2001: A Space Odyssey", where the alien intelligences had constructed a network of intersecting tunnels they used as we use the subway. Carl Sagan used them in "Contact" so that humans could confirm the existence of intelligent ETs. "Interstellar" uses them so that we can try to find another home for our species.
If wormholes exist, if they have wide mouths, and if they can be kept open (three big but not impossible ifs) then it's conceivable that we could travel through them to faraway spots in the universe.
Two recent papers try to get around some of these issues. Jose Luis Blázquez-Salcedo, Christian Knoll, and Eugen Radu use normal matter with electric charge to stabilize the wormhole, but the resulting throat is still of submicroscopic width, so not useful for human travel. It is also hard to justify net electric charges in black hole solutions as they tend to get neutralized by surrounding matter, similar to how we get shocked with static electricity in dry weather. Juan Maldacena and Alexey Milekhin's paper is titled 'Humanly Traversable Wormholes', thus raising the stakes right off the bat. However, they are open to admitting that "in this paper, we revisit the question [of humanly traversable wormholes] and we engage in some 'science fiction.'" The first ingredient is the existence of some kind of matter (the "dark sector") that only interacts with normal matter (stars, us, frogs) through gravity. Another point is that to support the passage of human-size travelers, the model needs to exist in five dimensions, thus one extra space dimension. When all is set up, the wormhole connects two black holes with a magnetic field running through it. And the whole thing needs to spin to keep it stable, and completely isolated from particles that may fall into it compromising its design. Oh yes, and extremely low temperature as well, even better at absolute zero, an unattainable limit in practice.
Maldacena and Milekhins' paper is an amazing tour through the power of speculative theoretical physics. They are the first to admit that the object they construct is very implausible and have no idea how it could be formed in nature. In their defense, pushing the limits (or beyond the limits) of understanding is what we need to expand the frontiers of knowledge. For those who dream of humanly traversable wormholes, let's hope that more realistic solutions would become viable in the future, even if not the near future. Or maybe aliens that have built them will tell us how.