A favorite if frustratingly smug exclamation of mine is “Time is a biological construct.” It’s not strictly true, as time is more of a purely physical construct than anything else that enables our limited mentalities to make sense of a world in which we are bound to three dimensions bodily but can dimly grasp the existence of more. Time is necessary, but it is also the great limiter, a factor that constantly thwarts our abilities to achieve and perceive. Moreover, humans are notoriously bad at really understanding how the inexorable advance of time is flowing all around us, and yet how it can, with no small effort, be somewhat mastered. As perhaps my favorite examples of the vagaries of time all reside within financial markets, I’ll illustrate what I mean later, but first it is important to make a few notes about temporality in general.
Everyone lives their own time
This point is readily self-evident and usually acknowledged when thought about. Perhaps one of the most common if at times tedious internal exclamations that adults tend to make when they see small children of friends after some years is some variation on “How time has flown!” This is entirely normal – as noted above, we aren’t particularly good at living outside our own perceptions in the first place. But it is important to recall that each and every person experiences and perceives time at their own pace, and that phenomenon of aging is maybe the easiest gateway toward comprehension. When you are young, experiences are painfully and preciously immediate, as they tend to be novel. As you age, the accumulation of lived experiences necessarily entails that novelty diminishes, and thus, time seems to pass faster as you aren’t experiencing that much that is new for the first time. Accordingly, it is clear that perception of time is what really defines time for us, and each person perceives time uniquely. Each person’s life is, to them, a unique accumulation of lived experiences perceived differently upon each viewing, like mutating layers of rock strata banded in kaleidoscope hues.
Perceiving time in and of itself can change it…particularly memories
When it comes to memories, the human brain is a tricky thing. Recently, it seems as though our prior model that experiences are consolidated before moved to long-term storage may be inaccurate; rather, the process is continuous, with memories being stored while they are being formed, at varying rates (as sleep, for example, is critical for the brain to organize its memory warehouse, so to speak).
But as the brain and indeed whom you are can be viewed as a collection of memories encoded in neurons and weakened or strengthened by the firing of synapses to unearth particular instances, it stands to reason that by choosing to recollect certain moments more frequently, you favor the preservation of some memories more than others. Two things then occur: First, you cull the brain’s entire warehouse for the memories most often remembered, thereby pruning by way of not bothering to preserve what you ate for breakfast on July 19, 2017 in favor of retaining the memory of your goddaughter’s baptism; and second, even by recollecting that baptism, you do not remember it the same way each time. We crave familiarity and repetition at times, but novelty brings exciting stimulus, so as we retread the familiar, some slight nuance may be either lost or added, depending on what is focused upon each time.
Being relative, time entraps us but is within our control
It’s intriguing how frequently time is cast or referred to as a pitiless destroyer of all things. The truth of the matter is that we live time linearly, but really, it is curvable, as best as we can tell. Moreover, our perception of it is elastic. Some may quibble that our perception may be elastic but not time itself, truly, so does it matter? I’d respond that if our perception of time is the building of memory, and we are our memories, doesn’t our manipulation of perception ultimately matter more than the reality of time? Frankly, we don’t quite know enough about time yet to truly escape it, but it is much more within our control than may be thought at first.
A life of routine without pauses of appreciation or reflection will surely accelerate perception of time, much like you can absentmindedly commute to work in what seems like no time at all, only to realize that pattern is so ingrained that 40 minutes passed in what appeared to be the span of 10. However, a life of pure novelty is impossible, so the ideal prescription appears to be a balance between the two. Moreover, pure novelty isn’t required to slow down time, but rather, different circumstances can help deploy a slowing of time, or acceleration.
For example, consider this: Find as close to a silent space as possible and close your eyes. Begin to inhabit each passing moment. Reflect upon the immediacy of every sensation remaining to you. At the other extreme of inducement, much like soldiers in combat scenes report time dilating to their perception, scenarios that hijack the body’s alert system can also help dilate time, such as moments of extreme physical effort or perception of danger. (I can assure you that the dozen or so seconds of freefall I experienced while skydiving felt quite long.) Now, should one wish to kill time, so to speak, rather than slow it down, it’s simple: Seek out diversions that are of necessity novel but not so novel that they require active perception. Hence the common temptation to rewatch a favorite film when bored but lazy on a weekend afternoon.
The payoff, or what prompted this reflection on time
The primary impetus of this post was an idle reflection in a bar on a lazy Friday afternoon when some of my mid-20s peers were bemoaning the onset of more severe hangovers, attributing them to “getting old”. I was amused in a sardonic way, reflecting on how mystery novels from the 1930s I used to read would call men of thirty to thirty-five “young”, and how the times can change so relatively quickly to land us in our youth-obsessed world. I don’t really blame the baby boomers for their predilection with the 20s and so on; after all, some young men and women of the American or French revolutions seemed to unconsciously evoke the same sentiments. Each age has its own preoccupation with youth; ours is just exacerbated by the proliferation of micro-narratives that become long term through their preying upon common human fears. But it’s rather tiresome to try to mark out your life in conventional signposts and give in to the worst vapidities of our time, focused relentlessly on looking and staying youthful. (Caveat, I’m as bad as any of my peers, only having always looked prematurely older than I am by virtue of balding early and hitting puberty very young, I frequently refer to myself as being essentially 40.)
But all these typical comments aren’t really a significant issue, although if overindulged they can prompt harmful behaviors. What is more important to note is that especially given the return of volatility to global markets, and increasing concern around whether the narrative of global economic recovery is truly real or not, understanding time and your relation to it is crucial when it comes to investing. Many will seek to recall the basic lesson they’ve all heard time and again: “Buy low, sell high.” And consequently, they will look to begin hoarding cash and hope for a dip in the markets only to buy everything cheaply. This isn’t a bad plan, but it is going to be very hard to follow. Until it happens, you don’t know how you are going to react to it. And the ‘it’ in this case is another recession, which could be even worse or milder than the last one (the evidence is mixed at best when it comes to assessing which). Plus, for those of us overexposed to financial assets, it’s not that pivoting all your money into capital preservation right now and then rotating out once the S&P 500 drops a substantial percentage will help either, but rather that as that overall return begins to dip lower and lower, one should remember the evocative nature of stress with regard to time, and how it elongates perceptions. This too shall pass, in other words.
Furthermore, to hearken back to what I noted earlier, it’s easy to remember the financial crisis and Great Recession differently each time. But it took quite some time for everything to unspool, and there were quite a few hiccups along the way. We have selectively pruned our memories to compress that time, which could provide us with a misleading mental map of how long it took for us to 1) realize we were in deep trouble, 2) financial markets to price in the level of risk, and 3) the actual level of pain and worry experienced. Consequently, one must soberly review the actual chain of events at length, and assess how history is rhyming – not repeating – this time around. For my purposes, for example, accumulating cash is still a sound strategy, yet I am maintaining exposure to emerging markets with a healthy dose of aggressive risk-taking as there could be a brief window of time in which capital flows to emerging markets may occur, should the US experience the first rumblings of significant shock, again. However, that window may well be quite brief, as currently, US monetary policy may induce flows into the dollar, and emerging markets companies may feel the pinch of higher debt payments much more acutely than others. But, bearing in mind all I’ve said, I’m also tracing the history of the financial crisis, and debating whether the same pattern of contagion may occur – and I have no firm conclusions as of yet.
In conclusion, adopting as much of an awareness and control of time in this period of heightened volatility, both financial and political, will assuage the tendency to let outliers or subtly altered memories overly affect us.