On Tuesday of this past week, the New York Times published an article titled Heartbeat May Shape Our Perception of Time, Study Shows. Time, as we know from our own experience (if not our reading/viewing of science fiction!) is a relative concept. Sometimes it seems to race past us, and we don’t know how we got to where we are so quickly (i.e. the advance of the holidays in the fall when we are an adult). Other times, not so much (i.e. the same time period when we are children, waiting for Christmas).
Apparently, it has always been assumed that our brain regulates our sense of time. The NYT article cites psychophysiology experiments done by researchers at Cornell University that found our hearts, and their beating, are central to our experience of time. If our hearts are beating slowly, time passes more slowly. The reverse is also true: a faster heartbeat gives us the sense of time rushing by.
This makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint. When we need to accomplish something essential, whether dire or just professionally or personally immediate, we need to focus. A quick heartbeat doesn’t allow for as many external stimuli to distract us. And when we are in a place of safety or a place where we are able to reflect and contemplate our surroundings, our heartbeat slows down and we are able to understand our experience through a wider lens.
As we find ourselves past the halfway point in Lent, and just one week away from Palm Sunday, this idea of our hearts driving our perception of the time before us is compelling. It reminds us that we can’t just think our way through Holy Week and the Triduum. We may find ourselves urgently engaged with this time in our liturgical year. Or we may feel that this time of penitence is expansive, allowing new depth of faith. Either way, our hearts are involved—and centrally–as we make our way to the cross.