Have the Lights Changed?

I slept really well last night, so naturally I feel exhausted. Why it should be that after a crappy night I can be really productive but after a good night of the deep and dreamless I’m fit for nothing is just another one of life’s mysteries. Hey ho, onwards and upwards…

I’ve been thinking lately about this whole watched-pot-never-boiling phenomenon. I always assumed it to mean that a watched pot never seems to boil because you’re watching it and because the time goes slowly when you’re waiting for something to happen – but now I’m beginning to wonder. Is it possible that the thing you’re watching – in this case an inanimate pot containing water being agitated by heat (is water inanimate? That’s an interesting question; I guess tap water is) – that this inanimate object can be affected by your observation of it. Is that possible? And if so how would it work? It’s mysterious, but I’m convinced this is a universal principle of human life; that the thing we are watching, waiting for it to change, will not actually change until we take our eye off it.

It is undoubtedly true that time is distorted when you’re waiting impatiently for something. It used to seem to me that traffic lights took several minutes to change, but one day I timed them and I found on average it was 20-30 seconds; not long at all. Some take longer, naturally, depending on the road conditions, but really 20 seconds is a very short time so I’m trying to train myself not to watch them but to think about something else. The number of traffic lights the average driver will encounter in a day, you don’t need that level of impatience in your life.

But is it actually true – could it actually be true – that things only change when you look away? I know that many a time I’ve sat drumming my hands on the wheel, got distracted by something on the pavement and only realised when somebody toots me from behind that the lights have changed while I wasn’t looking. Like the Beatles’ man who blew his mind out in a car, I didn’t notice that the lights had changed. But it isn’t just traffic lights where this happens: I firmly believe that if you have a problem, no matter what it might be – whether financial, logistical, emotional, psychological – you can wrestle with it and try different solutions but in the end it will only change when you’re not looking. Sometimes change can be so subtle and gradual that rather than turning from red to red and amber and then green, it gently shades through the different hues of the rainbow and you realise that while you were looking the other way the lights had changed.

What do you think? Is this something you’ve experienced? Is it a universal phenomenon?

I think we should be told.

Kirk out

6 thoughts on “Have the Lights Changed?

  1. I’m no scientist, but I think our perception of time is elastic, depending upon our viewpoint and state of mind; if I had the time [ha!], enthusiasm & intelligence, I might try to understand Einstein & Schrödinger, but I’m afraid I don’t, on all counts, so I’ll just try to accept it as one of life’s imponderables. On the sleep front, my experience is very similar: at 3 am, give or take, waking from a dream, I can feel reasonably refreshed, albeit initially slightly fuddled, but after submerging again for another 3 hours or so, I awake properly only after about ten minutes. In midsummer [as opposed to Midsomer: far too risky] I’m going to try staying awake after the first shift and see what difference that makes: I’m guessing a proper afternoon siesta will be required, as opposed to a read & brief nod. Time will tell [or not]. Cheers, Jon.

  2. If you wake with an alarm, and assuming you’re not setting it too early, I would try setting the alarm for 15 minutes earlier. Try that for a week. It may be that you’re not being woken during the optimum part of your sleep cycle.

    As for “a watched pot never boils” I’m always considering this phrase while I’m sat waiting for a client’s computer to update, install, or scan something… I feel guilty about reading a book while I wait, but I suppose I could use the excuse “well if I sit here watching it, it’ll take longer, and cost you more for my time.”

    1. I don’t have an alarm but my problem is waking in the middle of the night rather than the early morning. Reading a book sounds like an excellent use of your time in those circumstances

  3. I had some potatoes cooking in a big pot of water last Sunday. As I fiddled with other stuff in the kitchen, I wondered why they were seemingly refusing to boil. I popped outside to replenish the seed in the bird feeder, and as soon as I opened the door of the shed, I heard the ‘hiss’ as the pot boiled over. It happens to all of us, I have no doubt.

    I used to contemplate this old saying, “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” But thinking too long and hard about that could have set me on a path to madness.
    Best wishes, Pete.

  4. LOL. Yes, it does happen to all of us. I think the tree thing is very Zen but it’s also very anthropocentric because there are bound to be birds and insects that would hear it and we’ve recently discovered that even trees are much more sentient than we thought. Makes me think there’s something to pan-psychism

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