No More Clock-Punching


As part of LWON’s first birthday celebrations, Ginny set a question for me:

Your upcoming book is about experiencing time in different cultures. I can’t wait to read it. In the meantime, could you tell us which country/city/village, in your opinion, has the best conception of time? (However you’d like to define best.) In other words, where should I move to feel more sane?

I’d be happy to help you shop for cultures that might suit your sanity, Ginny. The results won’t be the same as my own assessment of their coolness, though, because like many science writers, I grew up as a sci-fi kid and see biological limitations merely as rough design guidelines ripe for meddling. I resent the third of my life stolen by sleep and love that we, through the ever-expanding use of artificial light, have colonized the night.

Perhaps you’d prefer somewhere with a concept of time that fits human activities, rather than a soulless number on a digital clock. In Sudan, the Nuer people are cow herds and tell the time according to the day’s work schedule. The clock might read milking time, pasturing time or cattle-moving time. According to anthropologist Wade Davis, Borneo’s Penan people measure time using subjective perception. If a hunting trip reaped a lot of meat, it’s understood to have taken a shorter time, even though it could have lasted several days.

The key to kicking your enslavement with a clock is to find a culture where, rather than sticking to a timetable, sequencing is what’s important. In elders’ forums in communities near me, for example, an agenda is often set and each subject discussed for as long as it takes, not according to a prearranged time window. Nature serves as the clock, and calendars are based on animal behaviour and ripening fruits. In contrast, your current feeling of insanity might come from living inside, where it’s always mid-afternoon in late spring.

I assume you’d be happier – all things being equal – in a place where the daily rhythms are in harmony with your body’s circadian rhythms. The circadian system is what a plant or animal can use to plot out its priorities—be they eating, resting, growing or hiding—during the day and night. There is a day and night happening out there in the world, a planet rotating while in orbit around the sun, but there is also a day within. The internal day usually passes in tandem with the external day, but must not be mistaken for a facet of it. They’re not the same thing.

I also assume you’d like to be somewhere you can consistently enjoy a good night’s rest. Cultural conceptions of a good night’s rest are wildly variable. For example, my earliest immersion in a non-Western culture was as part of Canada World Youth, a program that pairs a group of Canadian teens with, in our case, an Egyptian counterpart. Beyond the obvious mismatch between Canadian teen culture and the priorities of Islam, there were countless small divergences. For the Canadians, a common theme, unexpectedly, was the sanctity of sleep. Once asleep, a North American adult is likely to be, if not tiptoed around, at least left undisturbed unless there is some type of emergency. In contrast, if I retired at 10 in Egypt, I might be woken at midnight by someone asking where I put the spatula. I started to wonder why I had ever thought sleep was a state deserving of respect. Perhaps it is only when a society becomes chronically sleep-deprived that hours of it are hoarded and jealously guarded from disruption.

This bears out in the research. Solitary sleep on a softly cushioned surface, between four walls and under a roof—it’s hardly typical. Anthropologist Carol Worthman has spent many years in the field studying nighttime in traditional societies. In contrast with the Western sleep model—a regular bedtime followed by continuous sleep until morning—the Eje of Congo have some level of social activity persisting through all hours. The sleeping area of a family will see coming and going as some members retire, grooming each other for parasites that might disturb their sleep, and others hear the familiar strains of a thumb piano and get up to dance.

Botswana’s !Kung have similarly staggered bedtimes in their two-metre-round huts made of sticks and leaves. The huts aren’t much of an insulator for heat, sound, or predators—they mostly just keep the rain off—and it’s easy to feel embedded in the social interaction outside the hut. This setup lends itself to a less defined difference between sleeping and waking. Adults and children alike stay up as long as something interesting is going on, and it’s perfectly acceptable to check out of a group conversation by going to sleep. It’s a convenient way of cutting short an interminable or circular argument that’s become frustrating. Though sleepers won’t be woken at random, noone makes a particular effort to be quiet around sleeping people. Groups of men use the predawn quiet to debate, chat and settle disputes.

Hope this helps!

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10 thoughts on “No More Clock-Punching

  1. Jessa, there’s a short story out there whose author I’ve forgotten that should resonate perfectly with you. Or really with anyone who loves science fiction and time. It’s about a device that hoards time for when you want to use it. So for example if you have a boring day filled with meetings, it siphons that time and compresses your experience of it, to be stored for a later moment. At that later moment–one you really want to savor–you “uncork” the saved up time and it dilates your experience of that beloved moment.

    I want one.

    Can anyone help me out with the title/author? My weak sauce search queries are yielding precious little.

  2. Hi Jessa,

    In his book “The Dance of Life”, Edward T. Hall writes the Navajo consider the time it takes to reach consensus as a unique interval of time. I don’t remember if he mentions the Navajo word for this interval, but it lasts, on average, for 20 years. This is interesting: as you probably know, the Navajo are Dene.

    I wonder if that culturally-inscribed idea of time is something every Dene peoples from the Northern Tutchone to the Apache have kept in common regardless of the geographical distance between them.

  3. This is so serendipitous! It doesn’t answer my immediate question, but it’s salient. My question is: When did humans start to measure age? I guess it had something to do with puberty but who decided that someone was 34 or 35, etc. I can understand that certain important people might have been given an age, but when did it happen to the ordinary people?

  4. @Ian Steep:

    Humans started to measure age on February 7th, 28,455 B.C.E, at around 3:15 in the afternoon. It was a Tuesday, unsurprisingly.

  5. Just wanted to tell you, am writing a sci fi story about the asteroid miners, and am putting them on a 10 hour cycle for a 30 hour day.

    Seems as from Mars out, the most visible thing in the sky is Jupiter, and the red spot will rotate into view every 10 hours!

  6. morganism: i wasn’t able to connect to the email address you left. Here’s what I tried to send to you:

    Hmm.. so presumably your asteroid miners are human, in which case the literature shows that their rhythms can only really be manipulated to run on factors or multiples of 24. 10 hour cycles will make your characters perpetually jetlagged, because their hardwired clock gene expression cannot adjust. Its chemical process has evolved to a 24-hour length, but you could potentially introduce some kind of gene therapy to alter your characters’ circadian period.

    One neat application of circadian rhythms in space that I’d love to see explored — including by our own astrobiologists — is the fact that all life on a rotating planet is likely to exhibit the rhythms of its home planet. Therefore, rhythmic readings of gas metabolism in soil, for example, can clearly differentiate between biological contamination from Earth and that of the alien life just by looking at how long its cycle is. Circadian rhythms serves as a biosignature.

    Anyways, thanks for sharing your work-in-progress. Feel free to send it my way when you’re done!

  7. Jessa: as shown by Michel Siffre’s cave experimentin 1972 (and verified with follow-up experimentation), the natural human circadian rhythm is about 25 hours, not 24. We perceive it as 24 because brain structures such as the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) respond to zeitgeibers — cues in our environment such as the sun, regular mealtimes, etc. — that entrain us to a 24 hour day.

    For those (like me) with a malfunctioning SCN, the circadian rhythm is indeed longer than 24 hours. My sleep “shifts” around the clock, moving about an hour every day (and causing me quite distressing illness when I try to halt the shift) because my body is unable to entrain to the 24-hour day on my planet.

    So … not 30 (for most people) but not naturally 24, either (for most people.)

  8. Thanks Sparrow! Michel Siffre’s experiments have been fascinating to learn about, especially his findings that when isolated in a constant light environment, we often merge two days into one, perceiving no difference at all in day length.

    The average human circadian period is closer to 24 hours than to 25, although your longer free-running phase shift is not uncommon for evening people — morning people (lark chronotypes) typically have shorter circadian periods.

    For anyone who’s interested, I did a BloggingHeads interview on the subject over the weekend:

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