Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The Alteration of Subjective Time

A number of speculative fiction stories have played with the notion of changing subjective time for a person in one way or other. In Inception, the changes in the perception of time between differing levels of the dream world is a significant element in the plot (even thought the idea of time passing at a different rate in a dream is not established in reality).

Quite a number of stories have also played with the notion that a great deal of subjective time could pass in a short time in the real world and vice versa. For example, an episode of Star Trek Deep Space Nine has Chief Miles O'Brien receiving a twenty-year prison sentence in subjective time from an alien culture, which takes only a few hours to serve in real time (episode title: Hard Time).

What's new about this story idea (as pointed out to me by Lisa Gefrides) is that current work is ongoing in 2014 neurobiology to change a human brain's perception of the passage of time. This actually should not come as big surprise, since psychological research shows that under certain circumstances, such as in combat, the perception of subjective time can decrease by roughly one half or a bit more, giving a soldier greater time to react to an enemy than he or she otherwise would have. (Which makes people appear to be moving in slow motion and which would allow someone to see bullets flying through the air, which soldiers occasional report being able to see.) And everyone is familiar with the sense that subjective "time flies when you are having fun." What the brain naturally does under the right circumstances could be done to a greater degree artificially. There are probably maximum limits to how much subjective time can change, but no one really knows as of yet what those limits are.

What this means for story ideas is that long before science develops warp drive or transporters (which may never happen), perhaps even before worlds of virtual reality that allow 100% realistic simulation of all the senses (which certainly will happen if technology continues to develop in the direction it's going), there will be drugs or installed biotechnological equipment that lets a person change the subjective passage of time at will. If changing the passage of time is highly dangerous or expensive, you can expect that only a handful of the very rich or secret uber-soldiers will have access to the technology. As noted, it would be very useful for a gunman to be able to slow time down in a firefight so as to carefully select targets and plan strategies. Or conversely to pass through moments when nothing much is happening by speeding up time, such as when laying in ambush for an enemy.

If the technology is relatively cheap and safe, this could become an accessory in everyday life as much as mobile devices are today. Bored while waiting for a train? People used to read a book or newspaper. Now they more often surf the Internet or text. In our near future, people may do the equivalent of pushing a fast forward button, and voilà, the wait seems instantly over. Or conversely, certain moments, such as the last hug goodbye between parting lovers could be drawn out so that the experience would seem to last for hours.

Note also that in worlds of fantasy spells that change the perception of the passage of time should be fairly commonplace. I know stories exist that feature such spells, but perhaps there should be a greater usage of this device in fantasy than there is.

Stories ought to be written that reflect this aspect of the change of subjective time. Because it's highly realistic...



  1. In the cartoon Epic, it is suggested that flies and hummingbirds - things that are small with a relatively short life span, actually are living at a faster speed. I thought this was an interesting idea, and then saw a scientific article recently that actually suggested the same thing.

    Then when you think God is outside time--watch out Christian Spec Fic. We should be able to have a lot of fun with that one.

    1. Lisa, I'm not sure if the idea of God being outside time is immediately useful in a story (or at least I can't think of how to use it just now), but it is certainly interesting to think of differing life forms permanently experiencing time at different rates. I think this is been explored before in regard to aliens, but there's room to do so more. And I don't know if anyone has ever played with a differing passage of time from an angelic point of view...

  2. These ideas remind me of "The Magic Thread" from "The Book of Virtues," where a boy is granted a magic ball of thread he can pull to "speed time up." He learns this ability is not always such a good thing. (http://www.noogenesis.com/pineapple/magic_thread.html)