Friday, 7 March 2014

Night Over Day Over Night, Examining Our Perception of Time

Night Over Day Over Night

I love time. I like wearing my watch, keeping track of where my day is going and I absolutely hate being late. Time is governed mainly by the passing of days and nights: we work through the day and sleep at night. This is the periodicity we all live by. But what if you tried to break this cycle? What is you decided how long your day would be? In 1974, in the small town of Los Almos, New Mexico, a man named Dr. Mitchell Feigenbaum – a mathematical physicist who helped pioneer chaos theory (a post on this is soon to come) – decided that a 24-hour day simply wasn't long enough.

If this thought occurred to a normal person, they would probably decide just to go to bed earlier. You wake up earlier the next morning and are able to seize the day. But Dr. Feigenbaum decided to increase the length of his normal day to 26 hours, instead of the usual 24. It was quite a task to take on. It would mean falling out of sync with the passing of day and night. It would mean rejecting everything your body considers natural, and face being awake in the dark, many hours before the sun came up. In the end it became too much for Dr. Feigenbaum and he gave up. There's only so much of waking up to the sun going down that a man can take. [1]

To me, this attempt seems a little like trying to cheat time. If you were to stick to this regime, for every 12 days that passed, you would be one day behind the rest of the world. This cycle would repeat, as every day you would be two hours behind everyone else. For you, 12 days have passed. For the rest of the world, 13 days have passed. This might seem like a victory. After all, you've gained more time, haven't you? This regime will make it feel as if you're getting more done because less time has passed in terms of days and weeks, but really you're experiencing what everyone else is, just in a different order. Nothing has changed. Time still passes, your existence has just fallen out of sync with those around you. Your body will still age at the same rate. You will still die. You just might consider yourself a lot younger than others might.

But what if you isolate yourself away from natural light, any form of clock or timekeeping equipment and society as a whole? In 1962, Michel Siffre, a French speleologist – a person who studies caves – lived in an underground cave in complete isolation. His only communication was by shouting to a team at the mouth of the cave, which he did when he woke up and went to sleep, so that they could record it. The team weren't allowed to call back to him or give him any indication as to what time it was outside. Siffre had a number of his own experiments to conduct while underground but the main investigation was into the human body's internal clock and how it perceives time when stripped of all its gauges. At the end of the experiment, it was found that Siffre's body clock changed only slightly: his day had become 24 and half hours long. Siffre went on to conduct a number of follow-up experiments, which included having others in isolation with him and the results from these show that the group's body clocks were running on 48-hour cycles. The group would be awake and functioning for up to 36 hours and then sleep for 12-14 hours before repeating. [2]

The results from this experiment are remarkable. Without the sun to aid us, our bodies can experience twice the number of hours of wakefulness, followed by twice the number of hours of sleep. If the same experiment was carried out on the earth's surface, the participants would be absolutely exhausted, largely because they would be able to tell when it was night and when they believed they should be sleeping. Time as we know it as the passing of day into night and the belief that this controls our actions is an illusion.

We do need sleep, but not the way you think. We rest at night because of psychological reasons. For example, it's a lot easier to carry out tasks when it's bright outside. However, before the invention of street lights or light bulbs, our prehistoric counterparts had to go out and hunt during the day when the sun was out in order to survive. Food could be cooked at night by the fire, they could rest their bodies while they slept and then the process would repeat. It's this history that affects the way we think today. If our ancestors hadn't slept at night, would we still do so now?

These are just some of the aspects of time that might not have been known, and a few experiments I wanted to share with you. I hope you now have a different view on time and our passing through it. I hope you think about these things next time it's late and your feeling tired and ask yourself if you really are tired or is it just that its late?

[1] James Gleick, Chaos, 1998

I hope you enjoyed this post on some of the stranger aspects of our existence in time. If there is anything you felt was incorrect in this post, please let me know as I'm always keen to improve. If you have any questions you want to ask please do and I'll do my best to answer. Thanks for taking the time to read this and please look out for my next post which will be talking about the effects of time dilation and Einstein’s special relativity.


  1. Pineal Gland regulate day and night cylces through the light percived by the eye. Henceforth, we live according to the day and night cycles because of the massive light variation coming from the sun. Siffre in the cave lost acces to that information, confusing his gland and modifing his sleep cycles to whatever he saw fit or according to artificial light exposure.
    Very intresting text, good topic, just be careful with your conclusions!

    Here's some Pinal Gland details if you want :

    1. Ooo excellent I had never heard of that before thank you, I shall be sure to look into it.