Posted by on Mar 21, 2012 in Camp, Northwest Highlands, Science | 2 Comments

The Cuillin of Skye from near Applecross


After a series of weekends that have been spent close to home it was a delight to spend a cracking weekend at Applecross, amid great seascapes bordered by the pyramids of Skye and the mesas of Raasay.  It was a weekend that blended novelty and familiarity, time stretched out and the weekend felt at least twice as long as it would have done had we stayed at home.

Crags and coires tinted by afternoon blue


This is, I think, a general effect – the less novelty we experience, the faster time seems to pass. Two observations from studies of people who have lived on their own in caves with no clock support this idea. Firstly, when they attempt to count 120 seconds it takes 5 minutes; they experience five minutes as if they were two. In other words, three minutes of time had literally trickled through their fingers, unnoticed. It sounds peculiar to use the phrase ‘three minutes of time’ rather than the shorter ‘three minutes’ or ‘the time’, yet it is a correct use of language. Time is a quantity that is measured in the unit of minutes, so it is as appropriate to speak of ‘three minutes of time’ as of ‘two pounds of potatoes’ or ‘ten pints of beer’. It is worth labouring this point, for these  three minutes – that they could have experienced and crafted memories with – were gone forever.

Applecross sands


In a similar vein, the monotony of subterranean, clockless conditions often cause people to adopt a 48 hour day, with 36 hours of wakefulness followed by 12 hours of sleep. A consequence is that they do not experience the true value of the passing time, They squander two days of their  finite biological life in return for a mere day of subjective experience. In one example a man spent two months underground. When his colleagues came to retrieve him he couldn’t believe that his time was up, having only experienced one month made up of 48 hour days. The logical extension is that, were one to spend one’s entire life in a cave with no clock, it would only seem half as long as one spent overground.  Imagine the sense of injustice that would be felt by someone who had entered a cave at the age of twenty when the reaper came calling fifty years later. He would only believe himself to be 45 years old but in fact he would have used up his three score and ten.

Torridon Rainbow


I can’t help but feel that this is a cautionary metaphor for life, for career and family life may easily become a cave from which one might emerge blinking, disbelieving, wondering where all that time had gone. Everyone over the age of thirty must have noticed that the passage of time seems to accelerate with every passing year. My Granny, who is Very Old, has been commenting on this phenomenenon for as long as I can remember and assures me that the acceleration shows no sign of easing off in her ninety-first year. In an uncharacteristically mathematical insight, she rationalises this effect as occurring because each successive year makes up an increasing small proportion of one’s total life length. The discussion above suggests an alternative explanation, that it is a dearth of novelty rather than a mathematical inevitability that can lead time to trickle away unnoticed, two days at a time, as if we were underground without a watch.
You can read an interview with the isolation experiment pioneer Michel Siffre, from which these observations were drawn, in Cabinet magazine.


  1. Robert Craig
    March 22, 2012

    Mind you, ask any child, and they will say that time goes far slower when they are bored. Personally I find getting away is a holiday every weekend. Hanging about at home (when the weather is good at any rate) is a waste of good time and life.

    I also think that the more you have to maintain in life, the less time you have for doing the things you enjoy. Looking forward to the weekend because it means you can get more household chores done is a sign the priorities are wrong!

  2. blueskyscotland
    March 25, 2012

    A few years ago I spent three days away on a quick visit to Dresden, Berlin and the Saxon Alps.It seemed too short a visit beforehand but I Couldn,t believe how much you could pack into that short time period.If you are doing plenty or just relaxing in a special place like Applecross a day always seems to last far longer than one spent sitting in a house watching TV.
    I,m now a big fan of three day breaks even when its abroad so my ideas of the elastic nature of time changed after that trip.


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