I  read an article recently from the Human Adaptation Institute. They created a Deep Time experiment where 15 volunteers spent 40 days in a cave beneath the Pyrenees with no natural light or clocks. I was fascinated with this article for two reasons. The first  was I had no idea that there was a Human Adaptation Institute (whose purpose is to “better understand the cognitive and physiological mechanisms of human adaptation in facing rapid or long-term change.”)

The article also seemed significant because as humans we are all in the midst of rapid and long-term change. We know from nature that species and plant life adapt all the time.  Humans have the same capacity to adapt, but sometimes our beliefs, worldviews, and emotions hinder our adaptive capacity. Fear, for example, causes us to resist or ignore feedback we are receiving on how the world around us is changing.

In nature, things work on instinct, without consciousness, or at least without the kind of consciousness humans bring to life. The purpose of the Human Adaptation experiment was to “study adaptation – how we adapt to new situations, new environments or events … [and] how we can suddenly change our way of doing things when our situation changes.

Over the past 15 months with COVID-19, I have experienced that time seems to flow differently. Sometimes it seems to be flowing fast, and at other times it seems slower than usual. Some days, I wake up to the realization that another month has gone by and it is May.

What happened to winter? What happened to April? Because the pandemic has changed so many things, it may not be surprising to learn that it has also influenced our sense of time. (I have stopped wearing a watch, by the way.)

The pandemic challenges us to adapt to a lot of things. Our sense of time seems different even from a shift to working at home, for example. The Deep Time project was designed to observe how humans adapt when we put them in a cave with no outside contact, no sunlight, and no clocks.

Nature’s time vs. constructed time

And what was that second reason you ask? The second data point (to me) that came out of their study was this comment.

Well, towards the end we’re never thinking ‘oh that went quickly, or this is taking too long.’ We were always taking the right amount of time. Because there was no clock to compare to.”

Nature only takes the time and resources  needed to get the task done and no more. Here in this study, a similar phenomenon was found. Without the clock on the wall, telling us that we are going too fast or slow, the people in this experiment focused on the task and it took the time it needed to be accomplished.

As human beings, we have constructed many things that interfere with the organic flow of life and work. Our quarterly earnings report, the timelines we create for projects, and even the number of minutes we schedule for our meetings are all examples of how we construct artificial measures to assess how we are doing. I once tried an experiment with the meetings I held with staff and students when I was a VP at a college. I decided to set up my meetings in such a way that they would end once the purpose of the meeting was accomplished.  What I found, was that I listened more deeply to the person I was meeting with and because of that focus, we accomplished our purpose more quickly.  So, meetings that typically lasted an hour finished in 15 or 30 minutes and we each benefited from more time.

If we used nature’s time instead of man-made time would we be present in the moment, more often? Would we accomplish things that only use the time they needed? Would we be less stressed because we weren’t judging ourselves on our progress based on an artificial construct?  Maybe we should take time (pardon the pun) to ask ourselves these very quesitons.

 Here’s a link to the article once again if you want to read it in its entirety. Fascinating stuff!