On one silent commute home from the office, which I enjoy more of recently to practice better mindfulness, I reflected on how March felt like it was last week but June somehow felt like it was years ago.
These past few months, it feels like I have been living two bizarrely different yet parallel lives: one where I have filled the last six months of my life with multiple interesting and nourishing experiences — internships, online classes, personal projects, the occasional catch-up with a childhood friend — and one where I have done nothing but been cooped up at home. Perhaps weirder still is the fact that both lives are completely intertwined.
As I stared off into the distant roads, my head wandered off to Einstein’s space-time continuum theory. Blame it on my science-intensive high school education, who knows.
The space-time continuum is a concept that ropes together four dimensions: three physical dimensions, as in the x, y, and z axes that objects take up in space, and one time dimension. Including all four dimensions allows for explanation of why different observers might perceive a singular event uniquely based on their four-dimensional location.
Here are some examples that might help enlighten you on the theory. Bear with me though, it gets a little tricky. According to the theorem, time moves differently based on two factors.
The first factor that changes time is the location of an object in relation to a large gravitational force. This means that the closer you are to the center of Earth, for example, the slower time moves, because the Earth’s giant mass bends space-time. This also means, theoretically, that a watch tied to your ankle would eventually gain a second over (ie. fall behind a second) a watch tied to your wrist.
The second factor that affects time is the speed at which that object moves. This was proven when scientists flew a clock into orbit and back, and saw that it had fallen behind compared to an identical clock kept on Earth.
The most interesting affect occurs when the two factors above build atop one another. Consider astronauts who stay at the International Space Station. their location in space means they experience weaker gravitational forces compared to people on Earth, and thus experience time faster than you and I. However, the velocity at which they move at while orbiting around the Earth is significantly high, which slows down the time they experience. When we combine the two factors, the speed factor is significantly higher than the gravitational force factor, so astronauts returning to Earth from a trip to the International Space Station have aged less than the rest of us.
When creating the idea for space-time continuum, Einstein realized that objects with large masses can create a distortion in time-space. We now call that phenomenon gravity.
I can’t help but feel that this pandemic has done exactly that — our lives now orbit around COVID-19 which have become our new sun, as its gravitational pull binds us to our homes.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a continuum as a range or series of things that are slightly different from each other and that exist between two different possibilities. Thinking about the gravitational pull of COVID-19, I reflect about my being as a continuum.
I am a singular being, chauffeured by two separate drivers: my brain and my heart. Logic versus emotions. Determined to find a semblance of balance between the two extremes, I take action based on a continuum of options depending on which “driver” grips the steering wheel tighter.
This thought brings me to another important aspect of the space-time continuum: its allowance for time dilation. This phenomenon occurs when something seems to move slower or faster because we perceive it while moving at a certain speed. Maybe the reason March and June feels lightyears away, the reason everything around me seems to be moving both fast and slow at the same time, is because I am simultaneously experiencing time through two driving entities moving at two different speeds.
The first entity, my brain, constantly pushes for maximum productivity to compensate for the dull “new normal.” I subconsciously line up tasks one after the other and check them off my hypothetical list. Meanwhile my second entity, my heart, is grieving the amazing moments “that could have been.” My heart is slowing down time to commiserate for the vacation trips planned but not taken, reunions devised but not hatched, embraces longed for but not met.
This idea is not completely fictitious, evidently. According to Columbia University neuroscientist Dr. Shadlen, the brain perceives time differently based on its expectations. The phrase “time flies when you’re having fun” is actually caused by your brain anticipating distant horizons when you’re engrossed in an activity. Thus, time seems to move quickly. However, when you’re bored, your brain focuses on closer horizons and crawls forward, so that the time you perceive moves as such. It’s the same reason why time feels faster when you grow older, as you’re able to anticipate more events given your vaster life experience.
In my case, while the brain projects forward and anticipates the end of a pleasant time, the heart lags behind in vain attempt to stretch time and make the moment last forever.
I’m no Physicist, and this essay is not a Physics paper. Driving home that night, I really never thought Einstein would help me reflect on my mental state amidst this difficult time. But what the space-time continuum and string theory undeniably tells us is this: everything coexists, although oftentimes they do so in a way that is not tangible. However when it comes to a human being’s internal conflict, the war that exists between mind and emotion should not be overlooked. The Earth has a gravitational force that glues us human beings onto the planet. The way I see it, the brain and heart have their own gravitational forces of sorts that pull the body into a certain action. And when those forces do not align, it can be tiring to navigate that situation.
Gazing emptily onto the road as I approach home that night, I realized that living a “dichotomous life” is not unique to the heart and mind. I am constantly pulled between work and leisure, family and friends, sticking to a healthy lifestyle or indulging. Undoubtedly, the choices we make every day are not only what define our unique existence but also what colors our lives. At the end of the day, the ability to balance between the duality of heart and mind is a skill that requires life-long learning. And yet, the space-time theorem has shown me the beauty of incoherence and coexisting events. As I pulled into my driveway, I promised myself to respect and learn not only that value of balance but also the beauty of contradiction.